Winter Trees and Shrubs: Northern Catalpa

The names of plants often contain clues that can either help with identification or that tell something about the plant’s history or use. The name, catalpa, is said to be derived from the Muscogee word, kataƂpa, meaning “winged head,” presumably referring to the tree’s winged seeds. Or maybe, as one writer speculates, it refers to the large, heart-shaped, floppy leaves that can make it look like the tree is “ready to take flight.” Or perhaps it’s a reference to the fluted, fused petals of the tree’s large, tubular flowers. I suppose it could mean any number of things, but I’m sticking with its seeds, which are packed by the dozens in the tree’s long, slender, bean-like fruits. The seeds are flat, pale brown, and equipped with paper thin, fringed appendages on either side that assist in wind dispersal – wings, in other words.

winged seeds of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

Catalpa speciosa, or northern catalpa, is a relatively fast growing, short-lived tree native to the Midwest and one of only two species in the genus Catalpa found in the United States. Its distribution prior to the arrival of Europeans appears to have been restricted to a portion of the central Mississippi River valley, extending west into Arkansas, east into Tennessee, and north into Illinois and Indiana. It has since been widely planted outside of its native range, naturalizing in areas across the Midwest and eastern US. Early colonizers planted northern catalpa for use as fence posts, railroad ties, and firewood. Its popularity as an ornamental tree is not what it once was a century ago, but it is still occasionally planted in urban areas as a shade tree. Its messiness – littering the ground below with large leaves, flowers, and seed capsules – and its tendency to spread outside of cultivation into natural areas are reasons why it has fallen out of favor with some people.

The oval to heart-shaped, 8 to 12 inch long leaves with long petioles rotting on the ground below the tree are one sure sign that you’ve encountered a catalpa in the winter time. The leaves are some of the first to fall at the end of the growing season, briefly turning an unmemorable yellow before dropping.

leaf of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) in the winter with soft hairs on the underside still visible

The leaf arrangement on northern catalpa is whorled and sometimes opposite. The twigs are easy to identify due to several unique features. They are stout, round, and grayish brown with prominent lenticels. The leaf scars are large, rounded, and raised up on the twig, looking a bit like little suction cups. They are arranged in whorls of three, with one scar considerably smaller than the other two. A series of bundle traces inside the scar form an ellipse. The leaf buds are tiny compared to the scar and are protected by loose, pointed, brown bud scales. Northern catalpa twigs lack a terminal bud. In the winter, seed capsules or the stalk of an old inflorescence often remain attached to the terminal end of the twig. The pith inside of the twig is thick, white, and solid.

twig of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

pith inside twig of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

Another common name for Catalpa speciosa is cigar tree, a name that comes from its up to 18 inch long, cigar-like seed capsules that hang from the otherwise naked tree throughout the winter. The sturdy, cylindrical pod starts out green in the summer and turns dark brown by late fall. Seed pods that haven’t fallen or already split open will dehisce in the spring time, releasing their papery seeds to the wind.

fruits of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) hanging from the tree in the winter

The young bark of northern catalpa is thin and easily damaged. As it matures, it becomes furrowed with either scaly ridges or blocky plates. Mature trees are generally twisted at the base but otherwise grow straight, reaching 30 to 60 feet tall (sometimes taller) with an open-rounded to narrow-oval crown.

maturing bark of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

Northern catalpa is one of the last trees to leaf out in the spring. In late spring or early summer, 10 inch long clusters of white, tubular flowers are produced at the tips of stems. Before the flowers open, they look a bit like popped popcorn, reminding me of a song from my childhood (which I will reluctantly leave right here). The margins of its trumpet-shaped petals are ruffled and there is yellow, orange, and/or purple spotting or streaking on the inside of the tubes.

flower of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) just before it opens

More Winter Trees and Shrubs on Awkward Botany:

Winter Trees and Shrubs: Eastern Redbud

Botanizing doesn’t have to end when the leaves fall off the trees and the ground goes frozen. Plants may stop actively growing during this time, but they are still there. Some die back to the soil level and spend the entire winter underground, leaving behind brown, brittle shells of their former selves. Others, particularly those with woody stems, maintain their form (although many of them leafless) as they bide their time while daylength dips and rises again, bringing with it the promise of warmer weather. Plants that leave us with something to look at during the winter can still be identified. Without foliage or flowers to offer us clues, we rely instead on branches, bark, and buds to identify woody species. In some cases, such features may even be more helpful in determining a certain species than their flowers and foliage ever were. Either way, it’s a fun challenge and one worth accepting if you’re willing to brave the cold, hand lens and field guides in tow.

In this series of posts I’ll be looking closely at woody plants in winter, examining the twigs, buds, bark, and any other features I come across that can help us identify them. Species by species, I will learn the ropes of winter plant identification and then pass my findings along to you. We’ll begin with Cercis canadensis, an understory tree commonly known as eastern redbud.

Eastern redbud is distributed across central and eastern North America, south of southern Michigan and into central Mexico. It is also commonly grown as an ornamental tree outside of its native range, and a number of cultivars have been developed for this purpose. Mature trees reach up to 30 feet and have short trunks with wide, rounded crowns. Its leaves are entire, round or heart-shaped, and turn golden-yellow in the fall. Gathered below the tree in winter, the leaves maintain their shape and are a light orange-brown color.

fallen leaf of eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Eastern redbud is alternately branched with slender, zig-zagging twigs that are dark reddish-brown scattered with several tiny, light-colored lenticels. Older sections of branches are more grey in color. Leaf scars (the marks left on twigs after leaves fall) are a rounded triangle shape and slightly raised with thin ridges along each side. The top edge of the leaf scar is fringed, which I found impossible to see without magnification. Leaf buds are egg-shaped and 2-3 mm in length with wine-red bud scales that are glabrous (smooth) with slightly white, ciliate margins. Descriptions say there are actually two buds – one stalked and one sessile. If the second bud is there, it’s miniscule and obscured by the leaf scar. I haven’t actually been able to see one. Twigs lack a terminal bud or have a tiny subterminal bud that points off to one side. The pith of the twigs is rounded and pale pink. Use sharp pruners or a razor blade to cut the twig in half lengthwise to see it.

twig and buds of eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Bark is helpful in identifying woody plants any time of year, but is especially worth looking at during the winter when branches have gone bare. The bark of young eastern redbud is grey with orange, furrowed streaks running lengthwise along the trunk. In mature trees, the bark is gray, scaly, and peels to reveal reddish-brown below.

bark of young eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

bark of mature eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Eastern redbud is in the bean family (Fabaceae) and its flowers and fruits are characteristic of plants in this family. Fruits can persist on the tree throughout the winter and are another way to identify the tree during the off-season. Seed pods are flat, dark red- or orange-brown, and up to 2.5 inches long with four to ten seeds inside. The seeds are flat, round, about 5 millimeters long, and ranging in color from orange-brown to black.

persistent fruits of eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

seeds of eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Eastern redbud flowers in early spring before it has leafed out. Clusters of bright pink flowers form on old branches rather than new stems and twigs. Sometimes flowers even burst right out of the main trunk. This unique trait is called cauliflory.

cauliflory on eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

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Photos of eastern redbud taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.