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

 

 

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12 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?
    Sincerely,’
    Elizabeth Yuster, MSc.
    Environmental Biologist/Scientist
    Member: UCS [Union of Concerned Scientists]

    eyuster@hotmail.com

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

    Sincerely,
    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.”

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