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, katałpa, 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:

Dispersal by Bulbils – A Bulbous Bluegrass Story

The main way that a plant gets from place to place is in the form of a seed. As seeds, plants have the ability to travel miles from home, especially with the assistance of outside forces like wind, water, and animals. They could also simply drop to the ground at the base of their parent plant and stay there. The possibilities are endless, really.

But what about plants that don’t even bother making seeds? How do they get around? In the case of bulbous bluegrass, miniature bulbs produced in place of flowers function exactly like seeds. They are formed in the same location as seeds, reach maturity and drop from the plant just like seed-bearing fruits, and are then dispersed in the same ways that seeds are. They even experience a period of dormancy similar to seeds, in that they lie in wait for months or years until the right environmental conditions “tell” them to sprout. And so, bulbils are basically seeds, but different.

bulbous bluegrass (Poa bulbosa)

Bulbous bluegrass (Poa bulbosa) is a Eurasian native but is widely distributed outside of its native range having been repeatedly spread around by humans both intentionally and accidentally. It’s a short-lived, perennial grass that can reach up to 2 feet tall but is often considerably shorter. Its leaves are similar to other bluegrasses – narrow, flat or slightly rolled, with boat-shaped tips and membranous ligules – yet the plants are easy to distinguish thanks to their bulbous bases and the bulbils that form in their flower heads. Their bulbous bases are actually true bulbs, and bulbous bluegrass is said to be the only grass species that has this trait. Just like other bulb-producing plants, the production of these basal bulbs is one way that bulbous bluegrass propagates itself.

basal bulbs of bulbous bluegrass

Bulbous bluegrass is also propagated by seeds and bulbils. Seeds form, like any other plant species, in the ovary of a pollinated flower. But sometimes bulbous bluegrass doesn’t make flowers, and instead modifies its flower parts to form bulbils in their place. Bulbils are essentially tiny, immature plants that, once separated from their parent plant, can form roots and grow into a full size plant. The drawback is that, unlike with most seeds, no sexual recombination has occurred, and so bulbils are essentially clones of a single parent.

The bulbils of bulbous bluegrass sit atop the glumes (bracts) of a spikelet, which would otherwise consist of multiple florets. They have dark purple bases and long, slender, grass-like tips. Bulbils are a type of pseudovivipary, in that they are little plantlets attached to a parent plant. True vivipary occurs when a seed germinates inside of a fruit while still attached to its parent.

Like seeds, bulbils are small packets of starch and fat, and so they are sought ought by small mammals and birds as a source of food. Ants and small rodents are said to collect and cache the bulbils, which is one way they get dispersed. Otherwise, the bulbils rely mostly on wind to get around. They then lie dormant for as long as 2 or 3 years, awaiting the ideal time to take root.

bulbils of bulbous bluegrass

Bulbous bluegrass was accidentally brought to North America as a contaminant in alfalfa and clover seed. It was also intentionally planted as early as 1907 and has been evaluated repeatedly by the USDA and other organizations for use as a forage crop or turfgrass. It has been used in restoration to stabilize soils and reduce erosion. Despite numerous trials, it has consistently underperformed mainly due to its short growth cycle and long dormancy period. It is one of the first grasses to green up in the spring, but by the start of summer it has often gone completely dormant, limiting its value as forage and making for a pretty pathetic turfgrass. Otherwise, it’s pretty good at propagating itself and persisting in locations where it hasn’t been invited and is now mostly considered a weed – a noxious one at that according to some states. Due to its preference for dry climates, it is found most commonly in western North America.

In its native range, bulbous bluegrass frequently reproduces sexually. In North America, however, sexual reproduction is rare, and bulbils are the most common method of reproduction. Prolific asexual reproduction suggests that bulbous bluegress populations in North America should have low genetic diversity. Researchers set out to examine this by comparing populations found in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Their results, published in Northwest Science (1997), showed a surprising amount of genetic variation within and among populations. They concluded that multiple introductions, some sexual reproduction, and the autopolyploidy nature of the species help explain this high level of diversity.


Interested in learning more about how plants get around? Check out the first issue of our new zine Dispersal Stories.

Ethnobotany: Cattails

“If you ever eat cattails, be sure to cook them well, otherwise the fibers are tough and they take more chewing to get the starchy food from them than they are worth. However, they taste like potatoes after you have been eating them for a couple weeks, and to my way of thinking are extremely good.”  – Sam Gribley in My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George


Illustration by Franz Anthony (

Ask anyone to list plants commonly found in American wetlands, and you can guarantee that cattails will make the list nearly every time. Cattails are widespread throughout the Northern Hemisphere. They are so successful, that it is hard to picture a wetland without them. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer discusses this well known association:

Cattails grow in nearly all types of wetlands, wherever there is adequate sun, plentiful nutrients, and soggy ground. Midway between land and water, freshwater marshes are among the most highly productive ecosystems on earth, rivaling the tropical rainforest. People valued the supermarket of the swamp for the cattails, but also as a rich source of fish and game. Fish spawn in the shallows; frogs and salamanders abound. Waterfowl nest here in the safety of the dense sward, and migratory birds seek out cattail marshes for sanctuary on their journeys.

The two most abundant species of cattails in North America are Typha latifolia (common cattail) and Typha angustifolia (narrow leaf cattail). T. angustifolia may have been introduced from Europe. The two species also hybridize to form Typha x glauca. There are about 30 species in the genus Typha, and they share the family Typhaceae with just one other genus. The common names for cattail are nearly as abundant as the plant itself: candlewick, water sausage, corn dog plant, cossack asparagus, reedmace, nailrod, cumbungi, etc., etc.

Cattails have long, upright, blade-like leaves. As they approach the base of the plant, the leaves wrap around each other to form a tight bundle with no apparent stem. As Kimmerer puts it, this arrangement enables the plants to “withstand wind and wave action” because “the collective is strong.” Flowers appear on a tall stalk that reaches up towards the tops of the leaves. The inflorescence is composed of hundreds of separate male and female flowers. Male flowers are produced at the top of the stalk and female flowers are found directly below them. In the spring, the male flowers dump pollen down onto the female flowers, and wind carries excess pollen to nearby plants, producing what looks like yellow smoke.

After pollination, the male flowers fade away, leaving the female flowers to mature into a seed head. Just like the flowers, the seeds are small and held tightly together, maintaining the familiar sausage shape. Each seed has a tuft of “hair” attached to it to aid in wind dispersal. In The Book of Swamp and Bog, John Eastman writes about the abundant seeds (“an estimated average of 220,000 seeds per spike”) of cattail: “A quick experiment, one that Thoreau delighted to perform, demonstrates how tightly the dry seeds are packed in the spike – pull out a small tuft and watch it immediately expand to fill your hand with a downy mass.”

cattails bunch

cattail fluff

Because cattails spread so readily via rhizomes, prolific airborne seeds mostly serve to colonize new sites, away from the thick mass of already established cattails. The ability to dominate vast expanses of shoreline gives cattails an invasive quality that often results in attempts at removal. Various human activities may be aiding their success. Regardless, they provide food and habitat to numerous species of insects, spiders, birds, and mammals. A cattail marsh may not be diverse plant-wise, but it is teeming with all sorts of other life.

Ethnobotanically speaking, it is hard to find many other species that have as many human uses as cattails. For starters, nearly every part of the plant is edible at some point during the year. The rhizomes can be consumed year-round but are best from fall to early spring. They can be roasted, boiled, grated, ground, or dried and milled into flour. Starch collected from pounding and boiling the rhizomes can be used as a thickener. In the spring, young shoots emerging from the rhizomes and the tender core of the leaf bundles can be eaten raw or cooked and taste similar to cucumber. Young flower stalks can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob and taste similar to artichoke. Pollen, which is high in protein, can be mixed with flour and used to make pancakes and baked goods, among other things. The seeds can be ground into flour or pressed to produce cooking oil.

Cattail leaves can be used to make cords, mats, baskets, thatch, and many other things. Kimmerer writes about the excellent wigwam walls and sleeping mats that weaved cattail leaves make:

The cattails have made a suburb material for shelter in leaves that are long, water-repellent, and packed with closed-cell foam for insulation. … In dry weather, the leaves shrink apart from one another and let the breeze waft between them for ventilation. When the rains come, they swell and close the gap, making the [wall] waterproof. Cattails also make fine sleeping mats. The wax keeps away moisture from the ground and the aerenchyma provide cushioning and insulation.

The fluffy seeds make great tinder for starting fires, as well as excellent insulation and pillow and mattress stuffing. The dry flower stalks can be dipped in fat, lit on fire, and used as a torch. Native Americans used crushed rhizomes as a poultice to treat burns, cuts, sores, etc. A clear gel is found between the tightly bound leaves of cattail. Kimmerer writes, “The cattails make the gel as a defense against microbes and to keep the leaf bases moist when water levels drop.” The gel can be used like aloe vera gel to soothe sunburned skin.

Eastman rattles off a number of commercial uses for cattail: “Flour and cornstarch from rhizomes, ethyl alcohol from the fermented flour, burlap and caulking from rhizome fibers, adhesive from the stems, insulation from the downy spikes, oil from the seeds, rayon from cattail pulp, …” To conclude his section on cattails he writes, “With cattails present, one need not starve, freeze, remain untreated for injury, or want for playthings.”

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