Floridata Plant Encyclopedia

A Floridata Plant Profile 25 Catalpa bignonioides

Common Names: southern catalpa, catawba, Indian bean tree Family: Bignoniaceae (bignonia Family)
Image Gallery

southern catalpa flowers
The southern catalpa tree bursts forth with big beautiful clusters of orchidlike little blossoms each spring.


The southern catalpa is an attractive small to medium sized deciduous tree that grows to about 25-50 ft (7.6-1.2 m) in height. It is of similar width with a short trunk that supports a broad, open and rounded crown. Catalpa has large tropical looking heart-shaped leaves that are up to 8 in (20.3 cm) long and held oppositely on the stems (often in a whorl with three leaves emerging from the same point along the stem). In spring the southern catalpa produces showy 6-10 in (cm) branching flower clusters (panicles) at the stem tips. The white bell-shaped blossoms are 2 in (5.1 cm) in diameter and patterned with small purple spots and two large orange markings at the throat. The flowers are followed by long slender cigar-shaped pods up to 16 in ( cm) in length. The green pods ripen to brown in fall and split to release flat fringed seeds.

There is a form of southern catalpa that is often grown called 'Aurea' with sunshine bright yellow green leaves. There's a dwarf variety too called 'Nana' that remains less than 10 ft (3.1 m) in height and is great for small yards.

couthern catalpa tree
A roadside southern catalpa tree guards a field near Tallahassee, Florida.


Catalpa bignonioides southern catalpa is native to the southern United States from Georgia to Florida and west to Mississippi where it inhabits wooded natural levees, banks and the flood plains of the larger rivers. It has become naturalized in areas where it has been planted north and east of its range.


Southern catalpa suffers from numerous pests and disease including branch "die back" from which trees always recover, even if untreated, by growing whole new stems from the root crown. Light: Full sun to partial shade. Moisture: Southern catalpa prefers moist, well drained soils but is adaptable. Hardiness: USDA Zones 6 - 10. Propagation: Seeds germinate easily. Dig and transplant seedlings from beneath established trees.


Spectacular spring flowers and beautiful bright green foliage make the catalpa one of the South's most distinctive and best loved native trees. Used as an ornamental, accent, specimen (especially 'Aurea'), or shade tree. It is a valued ornamental tree with large foliage and showy clusters of flowers in the spring. When grown as a specimen many gardeners drastically cut back the large branches of their catalpas each winter. This radical surgery is called pollarding and the result is a tree with a thick trunk, very compact crown and very large beautiful foliage.

Catalpa also has some limited use in the forest products trade for fence posts, rails and crates.

catalpa pod
The long beanlike pods remain on the tree through winter until they eventually split to release their flat seeds to the breezes (these are from last year).


This tree has been widely planted and naturalized outside its native range because it is the host plant for a caterpillar commonly called the catawba worm. These are a popular fishing bait for southern freshwater fish known as bream.

All across the American Deep South the catalpa tree is seen, often stripped bare of it's leaves by hungry caterpillars. This means only one thing - it's time to go fishing! The foliage is quickly replaced in a few weeks and the cycle can be repeated several times in a season.

Steve Christman Jack Scheper 3/07/98; updated 6/26/04, 1/20/07

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Catalpa species profiled on Floridata:

Catalpa bignonioides

( southern catalpa, catawba, Indian bean tree )

Catalpa speciosa

( Northern catalpa, western catalpa, hardy catalpa, Indian bean )

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