Even a short, neighborhood dog-walk turns up fistfuls of late winter treasure: acorns to ID, a flap of birch bark, and—thanks to recent chainsaw work—as much fresh hackberry shavings as can fit in a dog poop bag. But even I know the magic of these seasonal accessories has an expiration date. Once spring really kicks in, will acorns and bark be as irresistible?
Which means I need to quickly share another limited-time-only gem: a Catalpa pod.
The Catalpa tree pod is 19.5 inches from tip to tip. If it were stretched—which it can’t be, because it’s brittle as heck—it would be an even 21 inches. I know this because I tucked cotton twine inside and measured. An inch and a half of slow curve: the better to twirl from a twig and dry uniformly, to burst and flake hundreds of bearded, papery seeds to the breeze.
I wonder how many seeds are in a Catalpa pod? It sounds like a chore for Cinderella after she’s done counting lentils in the fireplace.
Catalpa feels southern to me, even though the trees in Nashville are the northern species, or so the Vanderbilt taxa list tells me. We do love our showy, white blossoms, but then again, who doesn’t? This time of year you’ll still find plenty of pods dangling, waiting to erupt. People say they look like tree earrings.
If you need a what’s-a-Catalpa refresher, two nice ones book-end the Vandy library on 21st Ave. Both are wearing plenty of earrings.
My favorite isn’t necessarily huge or pretty, but it is easy to spot, and also at Vandy: drive down 25th Avenue South and the tree is on the sidewalk between your car and the humongous football practice compound.* My son and I used to walk under it on the way to swim lessons, hand in hand. He wouldn’t let me pick a pod because “it might hurt the tree.” I miss Kindergarten hands.
Right now is a great time to ID nearby Catalpas, because without the big, heart-shaped leaves to distract us, slim, dangling cigars are instant confirmation. Once you make yourself acquainted, you can watch as the tree clothes itself in green, blooms outrageous flowers, then makes more pods. For a few weeks, new green pods and old brown pods share twig space.
What I love about this pod is that it is longer than any I’ve collected so far, it is perfectly halved, it bears a mystery peephole, and it contains exactly one seed. The seed is a runt, which may be the feature that locked it snug against the husk’s inner fiber.
Now that I’ve finally dislodged the seed, weeks or months after its siblings have flown, I feel I should plant it proper and skip the wind dispersal crapshoot.
Or should I toss it from an upstairs window and let the breeze have it?
Catalpa entry with juicy species info, at IllinoisWildflowers.info.
*Location of Kindergarten Catalpa at Vanderbilt: 36º08’23.6″N 86º48’25.3″W