Usefulness and services of the tree :
The Indian Bean Tree
Facts and stories
The southern catalpa belongs to a tropical family of trees. It is one of two species from this family that managed to spread in North America. When it blossoms, this tree is completely covered with spectacular, white, bell-shaped flowers in large clusters. These then transform into long seed pods that look like giant beans.
There are several stories related to the southern catalpa’s name. Being so different to all the other species in its native environment, this exotic tree has been considered sacred by some Native American people, and is revered by the Catawba tribe. This tribe based in South Carolina, USA, have described this tree’s flowers as looking like ‘kutuhlpa’, or ‘winged heads’.
In the language of another Native American tribe, the Cherokee, the word ‘catalpa’ means ‘bean’. This is how the southern catalpa tree got its common name of ‘bean tree’, which is a nickname that definitely comes very naturally given its appearance.
Did you know?
Old trees tend to have plenty of tricks up their sleeves. When they lose a branch, they fill the gap in their crown* by growing new branches vertically, much like with young trees.
When their trunk is hollow, they can sometimes run roots down through the cavity: like amazing natural support cables, these roots can start several metres up the trunk and descend down to the ground to help with anchoring the tree in place.
This old southern catalpa develops surprising solutions just like these. There’s still some life in it yet!
The benefits of southern catalpa trees
The southern catalpa is a species that has a decorative effect on the urban landscape. Its exotic origins help with diversifying the range of trees in the city.
This species is also very efficient when it comes to filtering out pollutants from the air. Its huge leaves are covered with a felty texture that traps fine particles.
The large surface area of its foliage makes it a wonderful natural air conditioner. It also casts an ample amount of shade, creating a cooling effect all around.
It is very resistant to high temperatures, dry air and dust, so it could have a role to play in countering the effects of climate change at a local level.
How to recognise a southern catalpa
Huge (30x20cm), heart-shaped (cordate), with a felty underside; fall from the tree in autumn (deciduous)
Light green in spring/summer; yellow in autumn; and no foliage in winter
Long cluster formations (known as panicles) in the shape of a bell or trumpet, creamy white in colour with speckles of yellow and purple inside
Very long (up to 35cm) pods (known as capsules) which are full of seeds, often visible on the tree in winter
Specifics about this southern catalpa
Everything about this tree is spectacular. It gives the central section of the gardens a touch of the exotic, looking like it has come straight from a tropical rainforest.
Its foliage spreads out more horizontally than it does vertically, with its huge, twisted branches bearing the giant leaves. In spring, the southern catalpa is covered in long clusters of flowers. Then, at the end of summer, peculiar-looking seed pods hang from the end of its branches. The tree serves as shelter and a source of food for a host of insects, as well as for birds who continually belt out their song in the neighbourhood. Parakeets can sometimes be seen perching in the tree. Their green plumage blends into the tree’s foliage.
While this specimen is full of life, it belongs to a rare species for the municipality of Ixelles. It is one of the oldest and most majestic catalpas in the whole region, so the gardeners here know to take good care of it. They installed a support crutch under its huge horizonal branch, and set up a protective enclosure around it. They have also worked to make the soil richer in nutrients, to help make the tree stronger. With their help, the tree continues to have a decorative effect on the urban landscape.
*the term crown encompasses the tree’s branches and leaves.
(Story and photos created by Priscille Cazin https://www.sylvolutions.eu)
This portrait is:
- Enriched with an illustration from the Belgian Federal State Collection on permanent loan to the Meise Botanical Garden.
- An initiative of Christos Doulkeridis, Mayor of Ixelles , Audrey Lhoest, portfolio holder for Environment, Green Spaces and Planting, and Tourism and the Ixelles Communal executive