What it Takes To Notice What’s Always Been There: Catalpa Stories

Catalpa flower. Image from Creative Commons

Catalpa flower. Image from Creative Commons

Around this time last year I was not-so-patiently awaiting the birth of my daughter. She was about a week overdue and I was round and tired. The catalpa flowers were scattered all over the yard, their sweet smells crushed under my sons’ hyper feet. I mark my mother’s death by the arrival of the monarchs and the mums; my sons birth by the tenacity of zinnias and sunflowers. My daughter, she comes with the catalpas.

I hadn’t really thought about the trees much until those last few days before my daughter’s birth. But in watching all those flowers fall and contemplating naming my then unborn child Catalpa (a name we didn’t end up using), I realized so many of my memories contain those trees.

As a young girl my mother was the secretary at the Dardanelle Church of Christ on Union Street, the site of the state’s largest Northern Catalpa. My mother often talked about the tree’s history and prestige, and I remember how all the white flowers would cover the asphalt and turn brown under the wheels of the cars. The thick, stately tree had a beautiful and swirling curvy trunk and at the base was a decades old hole where squirrels and other critters lived. Needless to say, the tree was a gathering place for all the church children. The sweet, thick odor of the falling flowers was the smell of a warming spring.

20150516_124651Catalpa trees are native to the central United States, found from southern Illinois to Tennessee and Arkansas. The tree grows wild but some say there was a large effort to start cultivating them in the late 1700s, using the sturdy wood for railroad ties and fence posts. No doubt they were used long before by Native Americans for things other than industry and fences. These days, the catalpa tree is perhaps most loved among fishermen. It’s home to the catalpa sphinx moth, also known as the catalpa worm, which is supposed to be excellent for catching catfish. The worms can even be preserved in cornmeal and kept alive for the season. Besides that, the tree is beautiful. They have beautiful heart-shaped leaves and long bean-looking seed pods that drop to the ground in the fall.

By the time this column runs all the flowers will have fallen and my daughter’s birthday will have come and gone. But this brings me to a question that forms an underpinning to much of the work we do at the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources: How is it that we grow up so close to things and hardly ever notice them? How might our lives be bettered if we paid more attention to that which is so easy to ignore?

Measuring the Dardanelle Catalpa. Image from Arkansas Native Plant Society

Measuring the Dardanelle Catalpa. Image from Arkansas Native Plant Society

The catalpa trees were always there. In one way or another, I was always noticing them, albeit indirectly. Yet, it took a big life change to help me really see them, to name them, and to actively mark my seasons by their flowers. I’m not sure who planted the large Catalpa in my yard nor do I know the origins of the one on Union Street in Dardanelle. Maybe they were cultivated or maybe they grew wild. Had my daughter not been born in late May I might still be overlooking them. But isn’t that how it goes with so many of the things that make up our days? With each discovery we see more layers.

What about you? Do you have any Catalpa stories? Or are there other trees you’ve grown to love? A large part of loving a place is knowing everything that lives there. Dardanelle is particularly full of well-known trees. Be sure and take a trip down to city hall to pick up a pamphlet on all the trees of distinction you can find in this area. 

More on Dardanelle’s Trees of Distinction:

Champion Trees via Arkansas Native Plant Society

“Trees of Distinction” via the Courier 

Video created by Dardanelle High School East Lab Students. Learn more about East Lab by clicking here. 


The Seed and the Story is a partnership with the Courier newspaper serving Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.