Catalpa Trees In North Dakota And Minnesota?

To me, the very word “catalpa” sounds Southern. Like catalpa trees in neat rows lining the long driveway up to the cotton Plantation. Catalpa, magnolia and camellia have a Southern ring to their names.

So what are catalpa trees doing in North Dakota and Minnesota? There are two types of catalpa, appropriately named Northern Catalpa and Southern Catalpa, and they’re beautiful. But before everyone in the northland rushes to the garden center for a catalpa, there are limits to its growing range. But if you are within its adapted region, I promise Northern Catalpa will stop traffic as it catches the eye of motorists driving by.

Here are the characteristics of Northern Catalpa, Catalpa speciosa:

  • They are a fascinating tree with huge heart-shaped leaves up to 12 inches long.
  • Their flowers are orchid-like, showy and beautiful.
  • Flowers are followed by decorative long, brown, bean-like seed pods hanging from the tree, giving the tree the nickname “cigar tree.”
  • They grow rapidly.
  • Tree shape tends to be interesting and informal as the tree ages.
  • The most common height in our region is less than 30 feet, putting it in the medium or medium-small tree category. However they can get larger. The record largest catalpa in North Dakota is in Wahpeton, and is 54 feet high with a crown spread of 31 feet. Most do not get that tall.  

What is its hardiness range, and where can it be grown?

  • It’s considered winter-hardy in zone 4, but zone 4 covers a wide north-south area. North Dakota State University recommends Northern Catalpa for the Southeast quadrant of North Dakota. University of Minnesota recommends the tree be restricted to the southern two-thirds of the state, and used with caution elsewhere.
  • Outside these recommended boundaries, Northern catalpa can be used with caution. Choose a protected “micro-climate” within established yards.

What is its best use?

  • Its best use is as a featured specimen tree, where it can be viewed and appreciated up close in a visible spot.
  • Because its growth habit is sometimes free-form, it might not be the best choice for a boulevard tree.
  • The longevity of catalpa is considered short, which is typical of fast-growing tree species. Plant it where you can enjoy it, and don’t feel badly if it only lasts 30 years. There are exceptions, as some individual catalpas have lived much longer.
  • Plant it in a “disposable” location, where you won’t feel badly if the tree doesn’t survive forever. If you want to depend on a long-lived tree in a particular location, plant bur oak, but enjoy catalpa where appropriate.

Happy Gardening?

4 Responses

  1. Clara Klettke

    I have 2 catalpa trees in my yard in Kulm, ND. I planted them when I moved into town. Last year they over supplied me with seeds, so I started a lot. They are one of the prettiest trees that I have ever grown. I do have a question, how can I get rid of baby catalpa trees that I have started from seed. I do not want to just throw them away.

  2. Diane Hurner

    I have what I suspect is a burr oak in one of my flower beds. It is a mystery, but I think it may have been planted by squirrels from huge acorns my daughter brought to me from trees in Central Park. . It has very rough looking bark, could it be a burr? Do we have many of them around here?
    There are what I think are catalpa trees on the grounds of the Rourke Art Museum in Moorhead. At times there are many seed pods on the ground, and I have picked up a few. What is the possibility of starting a tree from their seeds? I suppose it would be much faster to buy a small tree, at my age I might see flowers one spring…..the flowers are beautiful and people tell me they are very fragrant.
    I’m enjoying the blizzardy days, knowing it will soon be Dec. 21 and the days will begin to be longer. My dad always said “When the days lengthen, the cold strengthens”, and I think that’s pretty accurate. Meanwhile, I make soup.
    Thank you for the gardening articles, they make it possible to dream about summer.

    1. Don Kinzler

      Hi. Yes, it is very likely it’s a bur oak in the flowerbed. Squirrels plant them for us. If it’s an oak-shaped leaf growing on a “volunteer” seedling in the Fargo-Moorhead area, it’s usually Bur Oak, the native oak in these areas, and well-adapted. Catalpa can be started from seed. No special treatment needed, and they grow quite well. Most of the catalpa in this area have been started from seed that people collect from an established tree. or a few of the locally owned nurseries handle them, but they are not commonly sold. Thanks!

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