Northern Catalpa, a Magic Bean Tree?

0:00 By Bill Lawyer One of the pleasures of springtime in Rye is savoring the scent and color of our urban trees. Among the most […]

Published August 19, 2017 10:28 PM
3 min read


By Bill Lawyer

One of the pleasures of springtime in Rye is savoring the scent and color of our urban trees. Among the most lavish of these is a species of Locust, which shows off its legume-ish and multiple white flowers all over our fair city in mid-May. A few weeks later, in mid- to late June, the leaves of another species of legume-ish tree, the Northern Catalpa, open, and along with them come equally beautiful flowers, with perhaps even more fragrance.

While not native to the eastern U.S., for the past 50 years or so, Northern Catalpas have managed to hold their own in Rye. They have taken root along Playland Parkway near Milton Road and Boston Post Road across from the Jay Estate.

Their yellow-white flowers grow in clusters along multiple branches. Catalpas produce nectar from both the flowers and the leaves, and noted beekeeper Richard Underhill says, “The catalpa and the honey bee share a mutually beneficial relationship. The catalpa helps feed the honey bee, and the honey bee helps ensure reproduction of the catalpa.”

After flowering, 12- to 15-inch long pods form over the summer. They are filled with numerous seeds. Given enough room to spread out, Catalpas grow 50 to 90 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet in diameter.

There is also a Southern Catalpa tree, distinguished mainly by a slightly different floral structure.

So what’s this about a Magic Bean Tree? In part it was just a “hook” to get readers interested in this month’s column, but there is a connection.

When I was a boy, we used to find the seed pods of Catalpas all around in fall and winter — by which time they’d turned brown and dry. We had fun opening the pods and throwing the seeds around. We also discovered they made great, if primitive, percussive musical instruments.

As for the magic part, for nearly 300 years children have been delighted by some version of the English fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk”. Jack’s mother sends him to town to sell their cow for food, but instead a man trades him for some magic beans. When Jack gets back home, his mother berates him for making such a poor choice. She throws the beans out the window and they go to bed… Well, you know the rest.

The point is that I always associated that beanstalk and the magic seeds in the story with the pods and seeds of the Catalpa tree.

In a way, all beans are magical, because within their tiny seeds they possess the DNA needed to grow ten stories high — with help from their friends, sun, rain, and good soil.

The magic part in real life is the way the world of nature continues to provide us with seemingly magical lessons that we can learn to bring about sustainability. Living in harmony with nature means that we protect Rye’s trees and green spaces, so they can provide us with what we need to be healthy in the years to come — right in our backyard.

The flowers of a Northern Catalpa

Leafy Catalpa on Playland Parkway

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