Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Catalpa speciosa

Ev called the other night. I was in bed, asleep. It wasn't late, maybe 10:30, but I usually get up around 5:30 am, so I was out. The phone next to the bed startled me out of a deep sleep and when I answered, I heard my son's voice. I could hear that he was walking - his breathing, the traffic, others talking as he passed by...I held my breath for a second, not sure if this was a good call, or one of those you always dread late at night.

It was a good call. Actually, after I hung up, I laid in the dark and smiled. He had been biking around town earlier in the day - to work, to his internship - and now walking home. "Everywhere I've been today there are these HUGE trees covered with the most beautiful blossoms and..." Before he finished his sentence, I just blurted "catalpa".

There was a pause, then he asked how I knew, without more description. I just knew. They are blooming all over Iowa and they are magnificent. Catalpa speciosa was on our "native plants of the Savanna ecotone - south country" list last semester. They are a canopy tree over 50 ft. tall found in hydric (wet)forests.

Last summer I did an internship with an extension outreach program and was assigned a small railroad town in Central Iowa. The town is on its deathbed, sorely run-down. It's seen better days. But the Northern Catalpas are everywhere! They can be found in the city park, forming an allee down main street (old Lincoln Highway), dotting adjacent streets, and all around the old school. One of my duties was to research the history of this town, and with my partner, come up with a landscape design that would contribute to the quality of life in this tiny berg that is gasping for its last breath.

The local librarian gave me a book on the history of this town, founded at the crossroads of two major railroads bisecting the state both north-south and east-west. In the glory days, there was a roundhouse, a depot, 2 major hotels, a booming main street, and a burgeoning population. Today, things are a lot different, but the one constant over the years has been the catalpa trees.

They were planted by a Johnny Appleseed, of sorts. This flamboyant young man, who never married, preferred to be called "Uncle Jimmy", or some such name. He opened and managed the opera house for years, bringing in shows from Chicago and beyond. Folks from far and wide came to town to see these spectacular shows in his theater.

This town was located on low land and, to this day, the townspeople still battle standing water. After a good rain, the ball field behind the school, certain streets, and the south end of City Park all become shallow lakes. Back at the turn of the century, Uncle Jimmy traveled to Iowa State College to ask a forester to suggest some species of trees that would survive in this wet environment. He came home with his list and set out on a mission. He planted the entire town with trees from that list, but his favorite was the Northern Catalpa, and his legacy lives on.

I have not been back, but I bet it's gorgeous this time of year. Some of the residents complain because these splendid trees cast down long seed pods (they look like a vanilla beans on steroids) and they "won't go through the mower!" The trees in bloom are covered with heavy clusters of large, white, orchid-like flowers displaying orange stripes and purple spots. The leaves sometime grow to be a foot long. When the blossoms start to fade, the tree lays down a floral carpet. In the winter, the seed pods dangle from barren branches, then pop open in the spring, letting loose silvery winged seeds.

I probably told Ev more than he wanted to know, but when I finished, he thanked me for the story about these trees. Then he told me he loved me.

"I love you, too, Bud. Good night."

No comments:

Post a Comment