The Passing of an Iconic Neighbor

A good friend let me know that a beloved senior citizen in her neighborhood was nearing the end of her life. She urged me to visit her so that I might catch a glimpse of her mature stature and significance, even though she had already lost great pieces from her aging body. I am writing here about a Katalpa tree, estimated to be as much as one hundred years old.

When it was planted on East Bay Drive circa 1920, the main thoroughfare that leads out of town here in Olympia, was nothing like its paved orderliness of today, nor was the neighborhood a tidy collection of homes overlooking the bay. Cars were coming into their own but some horse-drawn conveyances were still employed, though the competition was clearly trending toward the motor-car. Perhaps the tree was planted in celebration of the end of the Great War, a popular expression of remembrance and looking forward to a new world.

Originally, Katalpas (also spelled with a “c”) were found primarily in Midwestern forests but settlers may have brought them here as reminders of former homes; now they are a popular nursery tree. They are a rapidly growing ornamental tree that soon produces a sizable canopy of giant heart-shaped leaves. As the tree grows, it twists its trunk and some branches, creating a dramatic and distinctive shape. After several years of growth it begins to put forth showy and fragrant white blossoms that remind some observers of irises or trumpets every spring. Hummingbirds are drawn to the blooms like magnets. As the season progresses, these flowers develop into long bean-like seed pods. There is always something of interest happening with these trees!

If you are lucky enough to have one in your garden or neighborhood it is bound to capture your attention and affection.  But like all living beings, these trees cannot grace our views forever. It will be sorely missed, its majestic spread has seen so much history and it has touched so many lives. My friend was surprised but heartened that so many passers-by have left notes of condolence and respect for the grand lady of the neighborhood. Trees can be such a presence in our lives, their place in the canopy not to be taken for granted. I’m glad I was able to visit her before it was too late to take note of this important being.

10 thoughts on “The Passing of an Iconic Neighbor

  1. Hi Anne. I love catalpa trees so sorry to hear of an old one has to be removed. There was a wonderful row of them by the Olympia Center that was removed several years ago. There is a funny story that when the Olympia Center was built that the contractor planted catalpa trees and the landscape architect had specified Katsura trees. When challenged, the contractor said, “Catalpa, Katsura, what is the difference?” The catalpa’s stayed. Both have heart shaped leaves but catalpa leaves are large enough to wear as rain bonnets. Katsura leaves would only protect head of a mouse.

    Catalpa trees have fallen out of favor because they are classified as messy trees and not recommended for urban planting. Their big leaves clog storm drains. Their huge white, fragrant flowers produce long seed pods that fall to ground and require picking up where tidiness is desired. When I was a kid, we acted like we were smoking them like cigars. Some florists and home gardeners dry them for in use of dried floral arrangements or wreaths.

    You mentioned that they are a midwestern forest tree. They are actually a native in the subtropics.

    I heard once that every Girl Scout in America received a catalpa seedling in 1948 and many can be dated to that year. I tried looking that up but Girl Scouts have had many planting events for over a century across the US so I have not confirmed that. There is an old one on O’Farrell Street that I enjoy. I wondered if it was a Girl Scout planting.

    When Deschutes Parkway was rebuilt, katsura trees were planted. They are beautiful Asian trees and their little leaves keep them on the desired urban tree lists. They have multicolor fall colors versus catalpa’s yellow only fall leaves. But they do not have the huge white fragrant blossoms and they do not produce the entertaining huge seed pods. I hope catalpa’s will remain popular where clogging storm drains is not an issue.


    1. Thanks Julie! Obviously I am only beginning to know these trees. I’ll have to look for the one you mention on O’Farrell when I walk that way. The websites I consulted only took them as far back as Indiana but maybe their origins are even more interesting! Tree seeds have ways or getting around.
      And there were hints that these are “messy” trees. But so worth it! The other kind sound rather anemic. Mouse hats indeed! A great image!


  2. What a coincidence that I happened to run by this tree on my weekend long run. Besides aching calves, I stopped to stare because the tree trunk split so . . . cleanly? It looked like a cross section scalpel cut. Thanks for the history, and now I know what a catalpa tree looks like.


  3. There was a crane in place this morning working on removing the tree. Some neighbors had set up chairs across the street to watch. I hope the homeowners will plant another beauty in its place.


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