I had vaguely hoped that during my recent sojourn in Florida I might see a catalpa in (almost) its native habitat. Its usual southernmost range is further north in the state, but I had plans to visit botanic gardens, until the Son and Heir looked at me pityingly and pointed out that, with my allergy to heat, I wouldn’t be able to go until about 11 p.m., by which time they would be closed. (And, in fact, it was too bloomin’ hot at 11 p.m., even if they had been open.)
Most of the plants I photographed were either in the garden where we were staying, in the Florida Aquarium (which has branched out considerably in every sense since I was last there) or out of the car window at traffic lights.
However, there were some good bird sightings, not just at the Aquarium, and a kind blue jay left a token of its esteem on our front path one morning.
Butterflies were intensely frustrating, because they were strangely reluctant to hang around while I spotted them, took sunglasses off, put reading glasses on, opened phone, messed around with focussing and finally clicked.
Catalpas, like almost everything else in life, are considerably more complicated than I had thought. The genus is in the Bignoniaceae family, which also includes the bignonias (Virginia jasmines), which the great Tournefort named after his mentor Jean-Paul Bignon (1662–1743), priest, preacher, government official and librarian to Louis XIV, who was elected a member of the Royal Society in 1734.
Catalpa bignonioides (‘catalpa that looks like a bignonia’), the Indian bean tree, was named by the Hampshire/Carolina botanist Thomas Walter (?1740–89) in his 1788 Flora Caroliniana (on the title page of which Walter describes himself as ‘Agricola’, and which was the first North America Flora to use the Linnaean system), but the ‘catalpa tree’ had already been described by Mark Catesby (1683–1749) in his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, first published in parts between 1724 and 1747.
The name ‘catalpa’ derives from ‘kutuhlpa’, ‘winged head’, in the Muscogee language, which probably refers to the individual seeds, which have two light ‘wings’ to help airborne distribution. The wood is soft (hence, presumably, the very fast growth of the trees), and has no traditional use, though its own special pest, the larva of the catalpa sphinx moth, Ceratomia catalpa, is favoured as fishing bait, and – allegedly – keen fisherman will grow a mini-grove to harvest the predators. (The caterpillars can strip all foliage, which will regrow, but successive attacks may weaken the tree sufficiently to kill it: cf., alas, horse chestnut leaf miner.)
Catesby claims that: ‘This tree was unknown to the inhabitants of Carolina, till I brought the seeds from the remoter parts of the country. And tho’ the inhabitants are little curious in gardening, yet the uncommon beauty of the Tree has induced them to propagate it; and ‘tis become an ornament to many of their gardens, and probably will be the same to ours in England, being as hardy as most of our American plants; many of them now at Mr Christopher Grays, at Fulham, having stood out several Winters, and produced plentifully their beautiful flowers, without any protection, except the first year.’
I wanted to know if Mr Gray (1693–1764) paid a royalty on sales, but according to Desmond’s 1977 Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists and Horticulturists including Plant Collectors, Flower Painters and Garden Designers, his nursery was on land owned by Catesby (though this is not mentioned in the ODNB) – so more of a fruitful and mutually beneficial partnership?
Huge amounts could be said about Mark Catesby, botanist and engraver, the Gray family, and the botanical collection of Henry Compton (1631–1713), archbishop of London, and therefore of all Church of England dioceses overseas, who had in Fulham Palace ‘a greater variety of curious exotic plants and trees than had at that time been collected in any garden in England’ but that would be getting off the point …
The American catalpas (they also grow in the Caribbean and East Asia) are Catalpa speciosa (northern, also known as the cigar tree) and Catalpa bignonioides (southern), the difference between them being largely that C. speciosa has slightly larger flowers and seed pods. (These look not unlike French beans, hence the ‘Indian bean tree’ nickname.)
There is a huge Catalpa speciosa outside (the Garden website has ‘rather too close to’) Cory Lodge in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, and a garden hybrid, Catalpa x erubescens ‘Purpurea’ in the Rock Garden (and so planted in the 1950s, when this area of the Garden was developed), which is designated a ‘Champion Tree’.
A bright-leaved variety, Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’, can be found near the Chronological Beds, and an ‘ordinary’ C. bignonioides on the Main Lawn, though in a rather tree-crowded area, and roped off in the current heat.
They usually grow to about 18 metres (60 feet) tall, but there is a Catalpa speciosa (an American Champion) on the campus of the University of Mississippi which is 86 feet high and over 22 feet in circumference. Frustratingly, there is no indication of its age.
The large, heart-shaped leaved are most attractive, but the real glory of the tree (I think) is the masses of panicles in June and July, which attract bees, hover-flies and other insects.
Catesby has a Latin description of the flowers – ‘flore sordide albo, intus maculis purpureis et luteis asperso’ – which is very accurate: ‘with an off-white flower, scattered inside with purple and pale yellow marks’. All are scented (though the ‘Aurea’ in the Botanic Garden, while producing masses of flowers, is rather less aromatic). Inevitably, in this unusual (we hope!?) summer, the flower display has faded rapidly on most specimens, and the beans are well under way, but all the trees are currently providing a MOST welcome amount of shade – and as Catesby said, they don’t seem to miss the heat and humidity of the south-eastern United States.