A few magnificent catalpa trees grow in central Maine. Commonly known as the Indian bean tree, catalpas have huge heart-shaped leaves that appear in late spring. They have not become naturalized here in Maine however, being a more southern tree. A few mature ones are growing in this section of the state as specimen trees. They can grow from 40 to 60 feet high, and have been recorded to be more than 100 feet tall.
The Western Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) is cold hardy to zone 4, this section of Maine. A newer cultivar called “Carrigliath,” developed by Diana Beresford-Kroeger, is hardy to zone 3. The other American species is the Southern Catalpa, (C. bignonioides), hardy to zone 5 and somewhat smaller. Only these two species are native to the United States.
One I transplanted to Ripley from Boston has never done very well here, and after nearly 30 years has not bloomed. It must be the southern one. It continues to survive, growing sprouts from its trunk each year, and then these die down close to the ground in winter.
Any mature catalpas located in central Maine would have been planted by the homeowners and would be the hardier one. The coast and southern Maine are in growing zone 5.
The catalpas are not native to New England but have naturalized in the more southern parts of the region.
The tree has been grown in plantations for the wood, which is very durable. Fence posts and telephone poles are made from the wood and railroad ties were at one time, but it is too soft for this use. The wood is long-lasting when in contact with the ground.
A stately catalpa in bloom is a sight to see with its great clusters of fragrant showy trumpet-shaped flowers. Then in the fall the tree has these long beans that hang down from the branches where the flowers had been. Children call the catalpa a cigar tree on account of its foot-long bean-like fruit.
Recently I was on Cape Cod visiting family and noticed that the Eastham Town Hall was flanked by two large catalpas. Jim Owens of Eastham is the keeper of the Schoolhouse Museum windmill and Town Miller (grinder of grain), and knew something about the catalpas growing in town. “In the 1930s the children in the local elementary school got seeds. I wouldn’t be surprised if those trees were planted by them,” he said.
A large catalpa grows on Fern Street in Bangor. One grows in a farm dooryard on the Dover Road in Sebec. Another can be found in Rockport on Route 1 and another in Winterport on the Upper Oak Point Road. There is a huge majestic atalpa growing on the crest of the hill at 305 Kennedy Memorial Drive in Waterville, on the grounds of KeyBank. Celia, an employee of the bank said, “People are always stopping in to find out what it is, and some people have collected the seed in the fall.” The catalpas should start blooming any day now.
The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay has a catalpa bignonioides ‘Variegata.’ This one has huge, heart-shaped yellow leaves with green splash. The garden recently received a Catalpa bungei, a rarer species from Northern China that is smaller and bushy. Both are hardy to zone 5.
Don’t miss the floral display of the catalpas; you will not be disappointed.
Kevin P. Tremblay is a broker with Maine Properties Realty in Dexter. He can be reached at 924-6600 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.