Catalpa speciosa, northern catalpa, gets its latin species epithet from just how showy these blooms are; speciosa means showy or beautiful and the blooms live up to the name. The catalpa trees that we’ve seen in PA and MD have been full of blooms this year so definitely keep your eyes peeled for this tree.

Blooming northern catalpa. Photo Credit: Emily Broich

The seed pods that then form from these flowers are another distinct feature of this tree as they are about 1 to 2 feet long and can be broken open to reveal numerous fluffy seeds inside. Catalpa is sometimes called “cigar tree” as these long seed pods may remind some of an elongated cigar. Their leaves have a whorled arrangement and turn a distinct bright yellow in the fall. Northern catalpa is the sole host for the catalpa sphinx moth and many insect pollinators utilize this tree as well as hummingbirds.

Catalpa speciosa can be easily confused with the southern catalpa, Catalpa bignonioides but can be distinguished by investigating the leaves more closely. Southern catalpa leaves will release a bad odor when crushed while the northern species will not. Additionally, northern catalpa leaves taper gradually to a point rather than a sharp tip like southern catalpa.

If you see something blooming, leafing out, ripening, or otherwise changing in your woods, send us photos ( to include in next month’s Forests for the Bay newsletter for more phenological fun!