Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Catalpa Catastrophe

Several years ago, we received a Catalpa tree from a horticultural friend.  To call it a ‘tree’ at the time might’ve seemed like a stretch.  It was a liner.  A liner is an itty-bitty start of a plant.  Liners are typically distributed to nurseries where they are ‘grown on’ and then sold after a year or two.  My eldest son adopted it. 

At the time, he was 5 years old and moved the tree whenever the wind blew.  Well, maybe not quite that much, but it had a number of different 'homes' before he finally settled on a spot outside our dining room window.  He comes by the Moving-Things-Around disorder honestly.  His mother has a raging case, and her garden suffers the consequences every year.  I usually get the strongest urge to move plants when they are in full bloom (bad timing) and typically, it’s the hottest week of the year (terrible timing).  It’s like an itch - a terrible Poison Ivy itch - that must be scratched.  This year it was Monarda (Beebalm).  I relocated some boxwood this spring and the resulting hole was practically begging for some beebalm.  Self control is such a pain.  I did, however, manage to exercise restraint.  

But I digress.  Back to the tree: at maturity, Catalpas are lovely.  In adolescence, they’re awkward at best.  And after growing this one, I consider it a miracle that any survive to adulthood.  The problem with Catalpas is a frightfully un-winning combination of extreme new growth and extreme leaf size.  Long lengths of weak green wood are required to support the weight of REALLY large leaves.  Yes, I know, leaves don’t WEIGH much, but when the wind starts whipping, it’s like trying to fly 52 kites in the middle of a wind tunnel.  That’s a tall order for woody growth, let alone new growth.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when our Catalpa snapped in half last summer.  No kidding.  All the new growth – over 50% of the tree – was sheered off.  A summer storm blew through at night and we awoke to find our tree, stripped down to nothing, save a spindly little trunk.  Four years of growing had come down to this.  There were tears.  I shed a few, some for the tree and some for the boy.

As I typically procrastinate in all facets of my life, I put off the removal of our now defunct Catalpa.  Imagine my surprise when new growth started shooting out from the previously naked trunk.  When I say shooting, I mean, loitering nearby could cost you an eye.  Before winter closed in, the tree had put on 3’ of new growth.  This spring, we lost several more good-sized branches.  The resulting new growth is already approaching 4’. 

Interestingly enough, my beloved U of I tree selector (normally, a wonderful resource) denotes Catalpa as tolerant of wind.  Hmmm.  This tree is inherently aerodynamically challenged.  I would not recommend it as a candidate for The Wind Tolerant Club.  But I would recommend giving your kids some ownership in the garden.  True, their landscaping plans might not match yours, but you'll harvest the benefits for generations to come.  Even with nature's hard knocks, it's been a positive experience for one of my little growers.

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