In spring the catalpas are noticeable for their foot-long pods ⅓ inch in diameter, known as Indian cigars, hanging from the leafless branches. The name catalpa is from a Creek word. If you open the pod you will be surprised by the several dozen unusual seeds, which are over an inch long with teased-out tufts at both ends making a total length of over 2 inches. By comparison the centrally situated kernel is extremely small, even hard to find. They have a serene mode of falling through the air that results in three out of four landing the same way up. Also in the pod is an interesting stiff divider that looks as though it should be useful for something.
When the large leaves come they are heart-shaped, 6 or more inches long, and they smell. The white 2-inch upright frilly bells have purple spots; when a tree is in full flower in June it is a fine sight. The durability of the wood is fabled in North American history. The seed pod and seeds are strikingly similar to those of Chilopsis, though larger, while Jacaranda, the other on-campus genus of the family has a strikingly different seed pod and seeds.
There are several old trees on Mayfield Avenue in the vicinity of Casa Italiana, 562 Mayfield Avenue. A young tree at 1330 California Avenue, Palo Alto, produces leaves as large as 12 inches. Nearby, there are two mature specimens at 2349 Dartmouth Street.
C. speciosa, Western Catalpa, may still be identified among older campus plantings, as near the intersection of Lasuen Mall and Mayfield. There is a fine example in the College Terrace neigborhood on Dartmout St. near California Ave, in the planting strip adjacent to a large Monterey Cypress.
2017 update: We believe all the catalpa on campus and in the environs are C. speciosa; none are C. bignoniodes.
Name derivation: Catalpa – American Indian name for C. speciosa; bignonioides – like Bignonia, Indian Bean Tree of E. US.
About this Entry: The main text of this entry is from the book Trees of Stanford and Environs, by Ronald Bracewell, published 2005. Additions/Revisions were written by Ronald Bracewell as well (per John Rawlings), and added to the entry by Mr Rawlings (c 2011). “2017 update” section added Oct 2017 (SP).