Distinguishing Catalpa from Paulownia Trees in the Falls Lake Area

Catalpa trees have been used widely in urban landscaping for their beautiful and dramatic flowers and spring foliage.  Although they are native to the United States, they are not native to the Carolinas.  There are two species of Catalpas found in North Carolina.  Catalpa bignonioides is the Southern Catalpa, whose original native range is a small area of the Southeast, centered primarily in southern Mississippi and Alabama.  The Northern Catalpa, Catalpa speciosa, originated in a small, narrow territory in the Midwest near the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  Both species occur in North Carolina as either escapes from cultivation or as planted trees.  They are distinguished from each other only by minor differences in the flower and fruit.; the leaves are nearly identical.

Below is a photo of a young Catalpa tree in an open field in the Falls Lake Area.

Young Catalpa Tree in Open Field

Young Catalpa Tree in Open Field

A typical leaf from that tree.

Typical Leaf from a Young Catalpa Tree

Typical Leaf from a Young Catalpa Tree


Paulownia trees originated in China and are both exotic and invasive in North America.  Paulownia tomentosa is also called Princess Tree or Empress Tree and is a very rapid grower.  Unfortunately it greatly outnumbers Catalpas in the Falls Lake area.

Below is a young Paulownia tree from an erosion control area near Falls Lake.

Young Paulownia Tree

Young Paulownia Tree

Due to their huge leaf size and similar flowers, Catalpa and Paulownia trees are often confused with each other.  There are a few simple ways to easily tell them apart.  For example,  Catalpa flowers are white; Paulownia flowers are described as lavender, purple or violet.   Here are a few more easy field identification pointers:

Catalpa leaves occur  in whorls of three.  See below.

Catalpa Leaves are in Whorls of Three

Catalpa Leaves are in Whorls of Three

Paulownia leaves are opposite, always in pairs.

Paulownia Leaves Are in Pairs on the Stems

Paulownia Leaves Are in Pairs on the Stems

The Paulownia leaf is usually much larger and broader than the Catalpa leaf.  Below is an average sized Paulownia leaf on the left, with a very large Catalpa leaf on the right.

Paulownia Leaf on the Left; Catalpa Leaf on the Right

Paulownia Leaf on the Left; Catalpa Leaf on the Right

The fruits (pods) of the two trees are very different.  The Catalpa tree has long, narrow pods that give rise to the common name Indian Cigar or Indian Bean.  The Catalpa pods shown below are about 18 inches long and come from a large tree near the Falls Lake Dam.  The Paulownia tree has rounded, woody seed capsules that taper somewhat at the tip.  Both trees retain their fruit well into mid or late summer, aiding identification of the larger, mature trees.

Catalpa Pods on the Bottom and Paulownia Pods on the Top

Catalpa Pods on the Bottom and Paulownia Pods on the Top

In spite of similar appearances, the two trees are not related, but lie in separate plant families. Catalpas are in the family Bignoniaceae , and Paulownias are in the family  Paulowniaceae.

In summary:

1.  Catalpas are scarce; Paulownias are common.

2.  Catalpa leaves are large, but Paulownia leaves are larger, often much larger.

3.  Catalpas have leaves in whorls of three; Paulownias have two opposite leaves.

4.  Catalpa flowers are white; Paulownia flowers are lavender to purple.

5.  Catalpa fruit is a long, narrow pod; Paulownia fruit is a rounded, woody capsule.


Herb Amyx



This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Distinguishing Catalpa from Paulownia Trees in the Falls Lake Area

  1. Elizabeth Yuster says:

    Hi Fellows. I’m a Scientist, more familiar with the HUGE leaves, fragrant blossoms of Catalpa trees; one which we lost to extensive defoliation by Catalpa Caterpillars (though my Geckos LOVED them 4 food). We lost our younger Catalpa tree (~30-35 yrs old) to complete Catalpa moth Sphinx caterpillars. (My Geckos had a feast!). We recently encountered a ‘Shrub-like’ deciduous plant with small, opposite alternating ‘lance-like leaves’, UNLIKE the Large leaves of a Catalpa tree.
    The shrub (4-5 feet), has small (insect-eaten) opposite lance-like leaves-with petite, paired ‘Catalpa-like’ Pods. I’m In Maryland. What shrub would this be?
    Elizabeth Yuster, MSc.
    Environmental Biologist/Scientist
    Member: UCS [Union of Concerned Scientists]


    Any Ideas what this plant is? Tiny pods are thin, and PAIRED, Montgomery Cty, MD.

    Elizabeth Yuster, MSc. Environmental Scientist

  2. It sounds very much like Apocynum cannabinum, known as Dogbane or Indian Hemp. This plant is a member of the Milkweed family, has opposite, lanceolate leaves, is about the same size as you describe, and produces long, thin, paired seed pods. The stems and often the leaf veins contain a milky, latex sap similar to many milkweeds.

  3. Ingrid Snyman says:

    What about this tree ? (not sure how to post photos…) It has leaves that look almost exactly like a pawlonia tree, they are a dull green, heartshape, similar leaf patterning, small serrations on the edges and big: 24cm long. TeHe leaves are green underneath and soft rather than hard. However the leaves are NOT opposite and it does not flower. I believe that to be a pawlonia, there needs to be opposite leaves and flowers ?? I have a large specimen of this tree so it should have flowered by now if it is going to do so. It is decidious.

    • In the past, readers have included photos in their comments, but we are not certain of the method used as they apparently can’t be simply pasted in. You are correct that Paulownia trees have opposite leaves and do flower. They must be about 10 years old or more before they produce flowers. Red Mulberry, Morus rubra, leaves can occasionally be that large. They are alternate, can be heart-shaped and have serrations on the edges.

  4. Ingrid says:

    HI BW Wells Association, Thanks for your reply. I went on Dave’s garden website Plant ID and pretty sure the tree is an Idesia Polycarpa now, though mine hasn’t flowered, perhaps due to its age or due to being in a shaded woodland setting. So this is another tree with very similar leaves to Pawlonia and Catalpa…

  5. Pam boyer says:

    I would like to order a paulownia tree. Do I have to get 2 or are they self pollinating ? Do you sell apricot trees?

    • Paulownia flowers have both male and female parts, so the tree is self-fertilizing. The B. W. Wells Association is dedicated exclusively to educational, scientific and charitable purposes and has no commercial activity.

    • Michael L. says:

      The Paulonia trees are considered very invasive. They are also messy and, in winter, are very ugly with bunches of seed pods in the tree. You don’t want one…

      • I bought sterile Royal Paulownia trees since I knew they were invasive. What I didn’t know was they have a large root system that also sprout new trees. If​ left unattended, there would be clones of the original tree everywhere.

  6. Michael L. says:

    Northern Catalpa (speciosa) has opposite leaves. Only Southern Catalpa (bioge-i-cant-spell-it) can have wholes of three, but does not always. Also Northern Catalpa can have huge leaves compared to Southern.

  7. Thanks for your comment. Catalpa speciosa – Northern Catalpa – can have whorled or opposite leaves. In fact, they can have both arrangements on the same tree and even the same limb. In winter, the whorled arrangement of their three leaf scars is considered an important aid to the identification of the tree. The USDA Plant guide for Catalpa speciosa states “Leaves are generally opposite on large branches and often whorled in 3 on young stems.”

  8. I’m sure my neighbour has a catalpa tree but it never has pods?!?! Is this possible? We live in Southern Saskatchewan, Canada. I would love to start one in my yard…. I remember catalpas from my childhood in Tennessee.

  9. Thanks for the very interesting question. Catalpas do not produce pods until between five and seven years of age, so that could be one factor. But there are some cultivars of Catalpa bungei that rarely flower, so would not produce pods either. These cultivars are usually smaller than the common Catalpas. So your neighbor’s tree might either be too young, or may be a one of the flowerless cultivars.

  10. Mary L says:

    I live in Minnesota. I got caught up in that stupid ad in the Old Farmers Almanac (great book, hate the ads) and bought a Purple Empress tree. Wish I had never done this. It has HUGE leaves, almost like the Dinosaur plant. You can actually hear the Paulownia tree grow. Last year I let it grow as a tree. Yuck! Ugly. The winter was so cold I was hoping it had killed the tree. No dice, I cut the whole tree down and now have all the little sicker coming up. I use DEEPWOODS OFF to kill Buck Thorn. If I don’t like it this year I will do the same with the paulownIa tree.
    CATALPA trees are great. The ones in Illinois would flower in June. Female lightning bugs would crawl inside the flowers and make the whole tree twinkle, with their S.O.S call to the males. I wish I had had a cell phone back then to take a video.

    • Dallas H says:

      I agree 100%. I have an 80+ foot tall, 90 year old Catalpa tree, a bunch of American Elms, 100 year old Osage Oranges, and huge Sugarberries. The Catalpa completely beats those nasty Paulownias. I don’t know why people dislike Catalpas. The flowers, leaves, bean pods, and even the worms are great. The only downside to the Catalpa is it’s a large tree. I wouldn’t plant a Catalpa on a lot smaller than 1 acre. I recommend completely killing the Paulownia root system to keep it from re-sprouting.

  11. Debra M Woodley says:

    I’ve had catalpas in the past, and loved them– but my neighbor didn’t! Apparently when they were done with my tree, the worms marched across his yard and he HATED it! Where I live now there is a tree that I first assumed was a Paulownia– sorry, but I love them, too! Now I’m wondering if it is a Catalpa… either way, it’s young, and I’m afraid it is too close to my house. How far away would you put a Catalpa? I’ve ordered a northern Catalpa (to plant in north Alabama) and want to put it in a better location… Isn’t it the Paulownia that spreads cottony fluff all over the place?

  12. Thanks for your comments. Both Catalpa and Paulownia have tubular flowers and produce pod-like capsules that contain seeds. Neither is known to spread cottony fluff. There is a tree, mentioned earlier in the comments section, that is a willow, and willows are known to spread cottony fluff. The tree is Idesia polycarpa, called the Wonder Tree. This tree has huge leaves very similar to the Paulownia, but even though it is in the willow family, it may not produce the fluff you describe.

  13. Debra M Woodley says:

    Apparently mine is a northern Catalpa… mostly opposite leaves, but on the younger tree, there are twos and threes… it is only about 14′ from my house, so I’m guessing I will need to cut this young one and plant elsewhere? What would you suggest?

  14. Yes, you are correct. Catalpas have a very wide spread and can get very large, so in a few years, 14 feet would be much too close to the house. Almost double that distance would be better, with a minimum of about 25 feet from the house according to many sources.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.