Floridata Plant Encyclopedia

A Floridata Plant Profile 149 Catalpa speciosa

Common Names: Northern catalpa, western catalpa, hardy catalpa, Indian bean Family: Bignoniaceae (bignonia Family)
Image Gallery

catalpa tree
By August, this handsome Indian bean (northern catalpa) tree in Northern Kentucky is loaded with huge beanlike seed pods.


The northern, sometimes called western, catalpa is a close relative of the southern catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides). It is a larger tree growing 40-70 ft (12.2-21.3 m) in height. The northern catalpa has a narrow, roughly rounded crown 20-40 ft (6.1-12.2 m) in width with brittle irregular branches that have a tendency to break off. The large heart-shaped leaves are similar to that of its southern cousin and are up to 12 in (30.5 cm) long. They are held oppositely on the stems and often whorled on young stems. Northern catalpa has showy white, bell-shaped flowers with ruffled edges and orange stripes and purple spots on the interior. They are about 2 in (5.1 cm) in diameter and are held in loose branched 10 in ( 25.4 cm) clusters at the stem tips. By mid-summer the tree is hung with long 8-20 in (20.3-50.8 cm) slender, beanlike pods that persist through winter when they eventually split to release quantities of flat fringed seeds.

hardy catalpa flowers
Northern catalpa produces showy clusters of white flowers held on a panicle (a branched cluster of flowers at the tip of a stem) in late spring and early summer.


The original range of Catalpa speciosa is somewhat uncertain. It is apparently from an area stretching from Indiana to northern Arkansas where it inhabits the rich valley soils of the Mississippi River basin. At one time it was extensively planted for use as fence posts and as a result is widely naturalized throughout the midwestern and parts of the southeastern United States.


Light: Full sunlight. Moisture: Prefers moist, well drained soil but is very adaptable. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 8. Propagation: Seedlings or root cuttings. Northern catalpa is easy to transplant seedlings found beneath established trees.


The hardy catalpa is commonly planted as an ornamental for its abundant, showy blossoms and attractive foliage. The large, rich green, heart-shaped foliage creates a beautiful contrasting texture in mixed woodlands. in natural areas and wildlife habitats. Northern catalpa can get weedy and is sometimes seen growing in abandoned lots and neglected area in some cities. The tough and durable northern catalpa was once often planted as an avenue tree, especially in some parts of Ohio but isn't used much for that purpose now.

Use as a specimen tree on an expanse of lawn or even on a small lawn if the tree is severely trimmed each year (pollarded). Note that untrimmed trees have a habit of shedding twigs, seed pods and other debris. This is a messy tree and should be planted away from swimming pools and outdoor living areas.

hardy catalpa seed pods
When Jack was a kid these were known as Indian cigars and were highly prized: 1) to smoke (once) and 2) for sword fights (often).


The beautiful, creamy white flowers and large, dark green leaves make this an attractive shade tree. The Northern catalpa is a very fast growing tree and is often planted by homeowners looking for quick shade. In warmer zones the southern catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides) is more often grown, especially in the American Deep South. The Chinese catalpa (C. ovata) is another member of this genus that is used in landscapes.

The brittle wood is rot resistant and was once commercially important as railroad ties, posts, packaging, etc. Catalpa is the Native American name for this tree.


Northern catalpa is invasive (including some urban areas). Those living outside its native range should check locally to see if this tree is a problem in your area.

Steve Christman 12/09/97; updated 6/27/04, 6/7/11, 8/13/12

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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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