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.