The Plant Native

Southern Catalpa

Highlights

This tree will literally stop you in your tracks when you see it. Southern Catalpas are native trees that make a garden in their branches every spring. Their flowers are amazing, their leaves are heart-shaped, and their seed pods look delightful. On top of this, Southern Catalpas are happy in dry to wet conditions after they are established. They grow to 30-60 feet, making them perfect statement trees. Plant one immediately and make sure to add a name tag—your neighbors will want to know how they can get one, too.

Sun – Part Shade
30-60′ tall
Spring flowers
Catalpa bignonioides
It's a whole garden *in* a tree!

Dig Deeper

Explore the history, types, and where to plant native Southern Catalpas

Table of Contents

Once you see a Southern Catalpa in bloom in the spring, you will not forget it. And when you plant one, be aware that strangers may stop and take Instagrammable pictures of its flowers. Let’s discuss how to plant Southern Catalpas, where to plant them, and share a few challenges you may face. Let’s dig in, shall we?

Why plant a Southern Catalpa?

Southern Catalpas are native trees or trees that have lived in North America for thousands of years. Every drought, weather event, and cold snap they have lived through. They have the DNA and experience to thrive in our gardens. Planting native is important for many reasons, including:

  1. Native plants give bugs, pollinators, and birds the homes and food they need to survive. Southern Catalpas’ blooms give pollinators lots to snack on in the spring.
  2. Native plants and trees require minimal work, water, and care to thrive (especially compared to lawns!) Forget fancy fertilizers or watering systems; all Southern Catalpas need is rain to thrive.
  3. Native plants are GORGEOUS. They have been hiding in plain sight and their beauty is undeniable. Explore our library to find your faves.


Now that we’ve given reasons why to plant Southern Catalpas, let’s learn a little more about their common name (what is a ‘catalpa’?) and where to plant them.

Why is it called Southern Catalpa?

‘Southern Catalpa’ is one of many common names given to this tree, and it also sometimes called Bean Tree or Cigar Tree. (A common name is a plant name given by the generations before. Oftentimes, plants have many common names.) 

Having lots of common names for a single plant is confusing, which is why singular Latin names are a huge help. (Every plant only has one Latin name.) Look for the Latin name Catalpa bignonioides to ensure you’ve found this plant. 

When the flowers are turned upside down, you can absolutely see the 'winged head'

What is a ‘Catalpa’?

The word Catalpa is inspired by the Muskogean word kutuhlpa, meaning a head with wings.

When you look at the Southern Catalpa’s flowers upside down, you can see where this fanciful, imaginative name came from.

Where to plant Southern Catalpas

These trees are perfect for a sunny spot, surrounded by native flowers, or as a specimen tree in a visible spot in your yard. They will get up 30-60 feet tall in their lifetimes. Uli Lorimer, Executive Director of the Native Plant Trust writes that Southern Catalpas are “ideal as an anchor in a sunny perennial border or at the edge of a meadow. I have seen this tree commonly used as a specimen in suburban front yards as well.”

Scroll below to see flowers and shrubs to plant alongside this tree.

Southern Catalpas grow up to 60 feet
Map from USDA

Where are Southern Catalpas native?

Southern Catalpa has a wide native range that includes Maine and California. Southern Catalpas are native to parts of the West alongside parts of the Midwest and all of the eastern US.

Why isn’t there a Southern Catalpa festival?!

As we’ve said before—it’s shocking that we have cherry blossom festivals, but not Southern Catalpa or Redbud or Southern Magnolia festivals. Our own native trees are worthy of celebrating! Let’s all plant these gorgeous trees and start a new American holiday.

Four seasons of Southern Catalpas

Southern Catalpas look amazing year-round, thanks to the way they change with the seasons. Here is what to expect throughout the year:

Spring

In the spring and early summer, Southern Catalpas put a garden in the sky with their gorgeous blooms.

Summer

In summer after the blooms fade, Southern Catalpas provide shade with their heart-shaped leaves.

Fall

In the fall, Southern Catalpas replace their blooms with fanciful seed pods that hang like party decorations.

Winter

In the winter, Southern Catalpas drop their leaves but their fanciful seed pods remain. 

What to plant with Southern Catalpas

There are SO MANY native flowers and shrubs that look amazing with Southern Catalpas! The best way to pick pairings is to think of flowers and shrubs that flower at other times so that pollinators have food from spring to fall. Plant spring flowers like Golden Alexander, alongside summer bloomers like Coneflower and Bee Balm, and finish out with fall-time flowers like Aster. Adding a berry-filled shrub, like Winterberry or American Beautyberry gives birds something to eat in the winter. 

songbird-eating-an-american-beautyberry-fruit

American Beautyberry

native-aster-flowers-with-a-butterfly-garden

Aster

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Bee Balm

coneflower-native-plant-swallowtail-butterfly

Coneflower

monarch-butterfly-on-a-common-milkweed-plant

Milkweed

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Winterberry

To sum it up, Southern Catalpas are amazing statement trees that deserve a highly-visible spot in our gardens. Their four-season beauty and ability to thrive in a range of conditions make them perfect for beginning gardeners. Spend a morning or afternoon planting a Southern Catalpa, then sit back and enjoy their blooms for decades.

Looking for more inspiration on what to plant with your Southern Catalpa? Explore by region or check out our FAQs.

UPDATED —
04/01/2024
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