Bill Pramuk: Trees and People: Highlighting a beautiful tree species
Trees and People

Bill Pramuk: Trees and People: Highlighting a beautiful tree species

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There are certain trees people do not often ask about, but I wish they would. Here is one:


I hope you can come see our glorious huge tree we planted from a baby years ago. It is from my friend’s yard in Tuolumne. My husband grew some seedlings and will provide one to anyone interested. It is a true beauty, blooming now. If you wish I can send photos. You won’t be disappointed. Hope you and your family are all well.


The tree is a Northern Catalpa, Catalpa speciosa, one of the showiest flowering, deciduous trees you are likely to see in landscapes or growing wild in Napa County. The specie’s epithet – speciosa – means “beautiful.” That is a fair description of the showy clusters of white, trumpet shaped flowers, and, to my mind, the 10-inch broad oval leaves when they are fresh and fully expanded in spring.

The seed pods are of interest too. At 12-inches long, pendulous and brown, they have elicited common names like Indian bean and cigar tree.

Native to Indiana, Iowa, Arkansas and Texas, Catalpas are not inhabitants of Napa woodlands, but they are tough enough that wildlings occasionally take root and thrive here. I have often admired the specimen adjacent to the west side of Big Ranch Road between Salvador and Oak Knoll Avenues. It is a big one, just now finishing its blooming time.

According to Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs, Catalpa is “a common sight on farmsteads of the Midwest, abundant in the New England countryside and a presence in the Southeast.”

Here in Napa Valley, it is an occasional sight in older gardens.

Catalpa is tolerant of heat and a wide range of soils and it has moderate salt tolerance. All of its strong points make it a tempting choice for landscapes. But beware of its growth habit. It is capable of growing up to 100 feet tall, according to Hortus Third, but more likely to achieve a stature of about 60 feet tall by 40 feet wide (Dirr’s and Sunset Western Garden Book).

Based on experience, I consider Catalpas to be in the broad category of trees that grow fast but are weak “compartmentalizers” of decay. That category includes trees like willows, cottonwoods, poplars, and birches. When they receive large wounds, the exposed inner wood is subject to rapid decay. In contrast, many of the slower growing trees, like some of the oaks, are better able to resist and wall off — compartmentalize — decay.

Those tree characteristics should be considered before planting, pruning, or attempting to reduce the size of a tree that has grown too large for the available space.

As an alternative, consider Chitalpa (X Chitalpa tashkentensis ‘Pink Dawn’). This smaller tree is an unusual inter-genus hybrid of Catalpa bignonioides and desert willow (Chilopsis linearis). The crossing of trees from of two different genera produced a smaller tree with the showy flowers of Catalpa and some of the toughness of the desert willow. Additionally, the cross is sterile – no seed pods; just a lot of spent flowers to clean up through the summer.

The City of Napa tried Chitalpa as a street tree for a few years but decided to drop it because too many would not stand straight. Apparently, the shrubby desert willow heritage gives it a tendency to lean when grown as a single-trunk tree. I think it is beautiful as a low-branch tree, with a winter aspect of graceful curving branches.

So many trees, too little time and too little space.

Bill Pramuk is a registered consulting arborist. Visit his website, email questions to or call him at 707-363-0114.

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