Catalpas are large, beautiful flowering trees from a mostly tropical family, the Bignoniaceae (Catalpa speciosa, p. 198, The Plant Book, James Mill-Hicks, publisher, 2003). The abundant flowers are large panicles of small, frilly orchid-like cream flowers with maroon-mottled throats. The delicious, light scent of the flowers fills the air for several weeks, even lingering after the flowers fall and carpet the ground under the trees. Catalpa fruits are thin curved brown seed pods. Fast growers that are easy to propagate, the trees form plump branches with taffy-like undulations and large, heart-shaped leaves. The branches in the dense, leafy crown reach high and wide. Needing only moist rich soil and a bit of shelter from icy winds, the trees do well in our neighborhoods. A neighbor family on my block has a lovely youngish Catalpa on the southeast of their lot.
On my walks and jogs to the lake, I like to check in on the three large Catalpas on the west side of Lake Shore Blvd. between Hamilton and Burnham Place. The two lots where the trees are there have new houses built in derivative, turn-of-the-19th-century styles. The developers who tore down earlier structures there did not remove the trees, fortunately. The largest tree is in the front yard of the new house in the more northerly lot. Two smaller ones are next to each other in the parkway of the other house. Perhaps being so close together, they stunted each other's growth somewhat. The largest tree to the north has huge spreading branches, one of them teaching out to the street. In its shade, the owner has planted perennial geraniums and other shade-tolerants. In earth by the driveway, he's planted flowering thyme.
The trees present giant, snowy, fragrant crowns in early summer. Some people prefer to put introduced domesticated trees in their yards, but I'm grateful the developers and owners at the boulevard site saw the value in these lovely, native American trees.
When the lots over there were under construction, several years ago, I noticed that several infant Catalpas had taken root at the base of the chain-link fence the contractors had put up around the properties. Thinking that a Catalpa would be a nice replacement for a big elm in my yard that had succumbed to Dutch Elm disease, I brought a wet paper towel in a plastic bag on my next jog, to take the seedlings home. I planted three of them, one by the alley on the west side of my lot, one at the north fence, and one at the northeast of the house. The western seedling did not prosper, perhaps because of the shade from my Lindens. The northern one was stamped to death by workers from a fence-repair company. The third seedling, however, grew apace and is now 30' tall, five years since planting. I read that these trees don't flower until 25 years of age, so for the time being when I want to admire a truly grown-up Catalpa, I make do with occasional trips to my tree's parents on the boulevard.