You’re Planting That Old Thing?

So went the head for a piece by Michael Tortorello in the May 15th Home & Garden section of the New York Times. It begins with a riff on the catalpa tree, once a feature of yards in much of the U.S.:

Almost no one appreciates the catalpa tree, and few gardeners have planted one since the financial crisis. The one in the 1930s.

There’s more of this jokiness, but then Tortorello gets down to business:

In a broad sense, American homeowners have stopped spending money on all types of trees and shrubs. Bruce Butterfield, the market research director for the National Gardening Association, recorded a 46 percent drop in landscaping purchases in the four years after the financial panic (the 2008 edition). During roughly the same period, food-gardening sales increased 40 percent.


“Planting trees and shrubs is a major long-term investment, as is landscaping a new home or relandscaping an existing home,” Mr. Butterfield, 64, wrote in an email. “There are also fewer young people who can afford to buy their first home these days.” (It surely goes against the American nature to plant a tree in a rented yard.)

The vagaries of what landscapers and gardeners want has been a consuming question for Richard T. Olsen, a research geneticist and urban tree breeder at the United States National Arboretum in Washington. Dr. Olsen, 39, is the self-proclaimed “vice president of the catalpa plant club,” having written monographs on the plant and developed a new cultivar. (Look for it to storm the market around 2030.)

I’ll get back to the catalpas in a little while. But first more suggestions about why trees and shrubs go out of fashion. (In what follows, I’ll boldface plants that we grew in our Columbus OH garden. Some photos of that garden here.)

“The No. 1 reason I think plants go out of fashion is that a pest or disease catches up with it,” Dr. Olsen said. He ran down a list of once-popular and now-stricken urban trees like the American elm, green ash, Lombardy poplar and hemlock. “Homeowners don’t want to be out in the yard spraying chemicals on plants.”

A close No. 2: invasiveness. Dr. Olsen was talking here about once-esteemed plants that a modern ecological consciousness has redefined as weeds. Think of the Norway maple, ailanthus, buckthorn or Asian bittersweet.

Tortorello approaches

a half-dozen of Dr. Olsen’s peers: horticulturists, historians, plants people and nursery owners. They had their own neglected favorites and mysterious disappearances …

There were plants that bloomed at the wrong time for the spring garden-center rush, like the Japanese flowering apricot. Or the ones that took a half-dozen years to reach market size at a ball-and-burlap nursery: for instance, a sugar maple. And what about those that were too big for modern yards or too messy or too fleeting in interest — say, witch hazel, spirea or the common lilac?

… Among the unfashionable are fantastically adaptable street trees: Norway maple and ailanthus in the north ailanthus [ailanthus ‘tree of heaven’ certainly appeared as a volunteer, all over our Columbus garden, but we rooted it out]; callery (or “Bradford”) pear, Chinaberry and Chinese pistache in the South; and blue gum eucalyptus and edible fig on the West Coast.

Then there are the invasive Oriental-bittersweet, Celastrus orbiculatus, and crinum lily; and the very slow-maturing spicebush (Lindera glauca var. salicifolia). Finally, there are “old-fashioned” shrubs and trees like crab apples and flowering cherries, whose falling out of fashion is shown by a reduction in the number of available varieties.

Now, catalpas. From Wikipedia:

Catalpa, commonly called catalpa or catawba, is a genus of flowering plants in the family Bignoniaceae, native to warm temperate regions of North America, the Caribbean, and East Asia.

… They can be recognized by their large, heart-shaped to three-lobed leaves, showy white or yellow flowers in broad panicles, and during the autumn by their 20–50 centimetres (7.9–19.7 in) long fruits, which resemble a slender bean pod, containing numerous small flat seeds, each seed having two thin wings to aid in wind dispersal.

… Due to their large leaf size, catalpas provide very dark shade and are a popular habitat for many birds, providing them good shelter from rain and wind. These trees have very little limb droppage, but drop large, dark brown bean pods during late summer.

The two North American species, Catalpa bignonioides (southern catalpa) and Catalpa speciosa (northern catalpa), have been widely planted outside their natural ranges as ornamental trees for their showy flowers and attractive shape, or growing habit.

Etymology: The name derives from the Catawba Native American name catawba for these trees (the tribal totem), with the spelling catalpa being due to a transcription error on the part of the describing botanist (Scopoli) making the first formal scientific description of the genus. The rules of botanical naming state that the spelling used in the formal scientific description has to be retained for the scientific name.

… The bean-like seed pod is the origin of the alternative vernacular names Indian bean tree and cigar tree for Catalpa bignonioides and Catalpa speciosa, respectively.

The trees are often huge (and fast-growing):


and their gigantic leaves are a challenge to gather up and compost. Then there are the seed pods and seeds. Messiness all around.

Photo #1 shows a northern catalpa. The flowers of this tree:


and these flowers close up, showing their orchid-like beauty and the markings that guide potential pollinators:


Northern catalpas were all over the (very) little town I grew up in; they were probably planted in the 1930s. But by the 1950s no one was planting new ones; they were just too much trouble. (Our street had Norway maples instead.)

4 Responses to “You’re Planting That Old Thing?”

  1. Joseph F Foster Says:

    Hello Arnold,
    We had a Catalpa tree in our yard in the ’50s in El Dorado, in deep South Arkansas, and prized it for an attraction you didn’t mention — Fish bait!

    The tree attracts something for a moth, whose caterpillars, or larvae, then emerge in the Spring — late April to mid May in that area — and eat the leaves. But these catalpa worms, as we called them, are wonderful fish bait for bream, but even bass and white perch (which the Yankees call “crappie” and the Cajuns call “saccolait” will hit a hook baited with them. There are / were even special bait boxes — catalpa worm boxes–made to carry them in. We always made sure to leave a few to go into cocoon stage. Usually our tree and others in the area didn’t completely defoliate because of the fishbait harvest, but the trees will releave pretty quick unless they suffer repeated defoliation.

  2. John Lawler Says:

    I rather liked the noun phrase limb droppage. Morphology in action!

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Don’t know if anyone has looked at jocular -age, which seems to me to be pretty well established. Not that this droppage is jocular; it’s merely useful, as an alternative to dropping or drop.

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