Basic Information
Tree ID: 
Genus and species: 
This tree, also known as “cigar tree” for it’s cigar-shaped, cylindrical seed pods, is located up Prospect Street behind the Marsh Botanical Garden. It is most commonly called the Southern catalpa, since it it is native to a small group of southern states. This medium-sized, deciduous tree typically grows to about 9-18 meters tall (depending on whether it is a small or medium tree) and 1 m in diameter. It also has an irregular, broad-rounded crown. Due to its production of clusters of showy white flowers with purple and yellow markings, it is often planted as an ornamental shade tree. The tree has uses beyond this, also used for general construction work, pharmaceutical purposes, and conservation.
Sara Kiani, Rachel Perler
Collected Data
Tree shape: 
Oval, rounded or umbrella shaped
Date of tree entry: 
13.40 m
Diameter at breast height: 
0.64 m

The bark of the Southern Catalpa is reddish brown. It is separated into irregular shallow fissures. On the adult plant it is ridged or plated, while on young seedlings it is thin and easily damaged. The scales on the bark are evident.
Twigs & branches
The twigs and branches are also reddish brown in color, although they can also be green. These branches do not have a terminal bud, but have a number of small lateral buds that have reddish brown scales similar to the trunk. In the winter they have leaf scars, which are grayish-brown in color and resemble suction cups. These scars come in groups of 3 per node, which helps with catalpa identification.
The leaves on the Southern Catalpa are normally very broad (they can be up to 30 cm long and about 15 cm wide). The leaves are often whorled, with 3 per node. The tips are short-pointed or rounded and the base is heart-shaped, with no teeth or lobes around the edge of the leaf. They are green in color on top and lighter green below, and they fall off the tree in the winter. A key factor to consider about the tree is that they emit a disagreeable aroma when bruised.
Reproductive Structures
Due to the nature of the flowers on the catalpa, the tree is often planted as an ornamental shade tree. The flowers are white showy flowers, with purple and yellow streaks. They appear on the tree in branched, upright clusters. The flower itself are fragrant and bell-shaped with 5 lobes and appear in late spring (about May) and stay on the tree through July. The petals are normally unequal in size and up to 1.5 inches long.
The Southern Catalpa is also referred to as the “cigar tree” as a result of its cigar-like fruits that encase the tree’s seeds. These capsules are a few centimeters wide and over 30 cm long and contain flattened seeds. The capsule may remain attached over the winter, but these seeds do not mature until autumn. In the summer they are green, and once mature in the fall they are dark brown. The seeds are released when the fruit is dried and splits open.
  • Summer
  • Fall
  • Winter
  • Spring
Natural range of distribution: 
Catalpa bignonioides, commonly called Southern Catalpa, is a deciduous tree native to the Southeastern United States in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi. The Southern Catalpa thrives in average, medium-to-wet well-drained soil but can tolerate a range of soil conditions as well as regional flooding. This hardy species can adapt to dry or wet soils with a pH range from 5.5 to 7.0. There are no serious insect or disease problems associated with the species, although the caterpillars of the catalpa sphinx moth can cause significant damage from feeding on the leaves. Southern Catalpa is susceptible to verticillium wilt, leaf spots, mildew, dieback, and blight.
Origin, history, and uses: 

The Southern Catalpa is native to a small area of the Southeastern United States which includes central Mississippi, Alabama, and south Georgia to Florida. However, this species is able to grow almost anywhere in the United States. The range of the Southern Catalpa has expanded to include parts of New England, New York to Ohio, the central and southern plains states, and many states east of the Rocky Mountains. First cultivated in 1726, the Southern Catalpa has a history of ethnobotanic, industrial, and ornamental uses.

Pioneer doctors used Catalpa seed pods and seeds to treat a variety of breathing and heart problems. Pods and seeds have been reported to possess antispasmodic, cardiac, and sedative properties. The juice from leaves and roots were used to treat eye swelling and infections. The bark was used to make tea and taken for swollen lymph nodes or as a treatment for malaria. Bark was also administered as a treatment for intestinal parasites. The plant is reported to have mild sedative and narcotic properties. Additionally, modern research show that catalpa pods and seeds have diuretic properties.

Modern industrial uses of Catalpa bignonioides include general construction work, interior finish, cabinetwork, fence posts, rails, and fuel. The tree is also used as an ornamental shade tree and planted in urban areas as a street and lawn tree. Southern Catalpa is planted in windbreaks for conservation purposes. Additionally, the tree is used to attract catalpa worm, which is harvested and used as fish bait.

The Southern Catalpa is a perennial deciduous tree that blooms from May to June. The catalpa blooms with a heavy load of flowers in the spring followed by a large number of leaves in the fall. In the winter, the Southern Catalpa develops many large seedpods. The tree has dense foliage in summer and porous foliage in winter. The leaves give off a disagreeable odor when crushed.

Missouri Botanical Garden. 2017. Catalpa bignonioides. Gardens & Gardening. Retrieved from:

National Science Foundation. 2017. Catalpa bignonioides. Go Botany. Retrieved from:

Seiler, J., Jensen, E. Niemiera, A. & Peterson, J. 2016. Southern catalpa. Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. Retrieved from:

Urban Forest Ecosystems Institute. 2017. “Catalpa bignonioides Tree Record.” SelecTree. Retrieved from:

United States Department of Agriculture. 2017. Catalpa bignonioides. Plants Database. Retrieved from:

Other information of interest: 

The tree has several names that are used: catalpa, katalpa, American catalpa, common catalpa, eastern catalpa, catawba, bean tree, Indian bean, Indian cigar tree, lady cigar, Shawnee wood, caterpillar tree, worm tree, fish bait tree, fisherman’s tree. The name Catalpa is an old American Indian name for the plant.

There a number of factors that affect the Southern Catalpa. The larva of the catalpa sphinx caterpillar eats the leaves of the Southern Catalpa and can result in complete defoliation of the plant some years. The plant can also be killed by verticillium wilt, which in early stages cause the branches to die. Mildew is also a concern, coating the leaves, turning them yellow, and causing them to drop.

The tree can also cause issues with other plants, due to the fact that it is an invasive, weedy tree. Not only does it easily escape cultivation, the flowers, seedpods and seeds create a mess on the ground near the tree.

Media and Arts

The Great Catalpa Tree

By Rachel Perler & Sara Kiani

I dreamt of a Catalpa tree with leaves so green

Abundant white flowers with cigar fruits in between,

I dreamt that its trunk stretched up towards the sky,

And on its smallest branch landed a butterfly.

 I awoke this morn with a plan in mind

The Catalpa of my dreams was mine to find;

I set out over the hills of Prospect street

Excitement swelled within; I felt my heart beat.

As I passed over the hill’s crown

I took a moment to stand atop and look down,

There I saw the great Catalpa tree 

Alas, on its branches there were no leaves

But my despair passed as quickly as it came

Even bare, the Catalpa’s beauty was the same

I dreamt of a Catalpa tree with leaves so green

But the tree of my dreams could not compare to what I’d seen

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