Texas Cooperative Extension,
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas

July-August 2004

Catalpa, Catalpa bignonioides

Cynthia W. MuellerCollege Station, TX

Catalpa, Catalpa bignonioides
Catalpa, C. bignonioides


The Southern catalpa is a native of portions of Georgia and Florida, and of Alabama and eastern Mississippi, and was highly regarded by the first settlers in the South. According to Greg Grant - an admirer of the catalpa - Mark Catsby discovered the species in 1726 and soon introducted it to gardens in England and America. Catalpas were planted at Mt. Vernon by George Washington.

Several of the common names associated with the catalpa have to do with the caterpillars that often can be found on them: fishbait tree or wormtree. Fishermen learned long ago that Ceratomia catalpae, a moth of the Sphinx family, made excellent fishbait. These are collected from local trees by fishermen or sold from bait stands. Dr. John Jackman of the Department of Entomology, Texas A&M, reports, "They occur here and throughout East Texas. I have seen a few local trees in years past that had hundreds of them. They do seem a bit irregular in appearing, though, from year to year. Parasites and pathogens (disease) probably have a big impact on their numbers. Remember that they are very seasonal, too. If you have them they would only be there for a month or so in the spring. There might be a second generation in the fall of the year, in some cases."

Ceratomia catalpae, or fishing worm
Ceratomia catalpae, catalpa fishing worm
courtesy of L.L. Hyche, Department of Entomology,
Auburn University.
Catalpas are deciduous trees with heart-shaped leaves from 6" to a foot in length, and bear large panicles of white flowers, spotted and lined with purple and yellow, followed by long, slender bean-like seed pods. The trees may grow as tall as 45 feet. They are not particular as to soils as long as they are not too wet, or too alkaline.

The related Catalpa speciosa, Northern or Hardy Catalpa, is a somewhat larger tree with somewhat less attractive flowers. It is not very common in Texas.

Catalpas are close relatives of the Desert Willow (Chilopsis). The Royal Palownia (P. tomentosa), Princess or Empress Tree, is very similar in style to the catalpa but is actually an Asian species belonging to the Scrophulariaceae, and has beautiful softly lavender or purple flowers and very sought-after wood.

Ceratomia catalpae, adult sphinx moth
Ceratomia adult Sphinx moth
courtesy of L.L. Hyche, Department of Entomology,
Auburn University.