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Plant a piece of cultural history: The Southern Catalpa

Catalpas represent a Southern tradition at many levels. They are common fixtures along roadsides and old home sites. Their big green leaves, white panicle flowers and long bean fruit are noticeable from hundreds of yards away. The wood of this tree was used in the past for fence posts, rails and furniture. Today, Catalpa is used as a shade tree and for growing a special caterpillar. The catalpa “worm” makes excellent fish bait and is prized by fishermen across the South. 

The Catalpa tree is a member of the Bignonia family. This family contains more than 700 species found primarily in tropical and sub-tropical regions. The Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignoniodes) has many common names including Indian Cigar, Indian Bean, Caterpillar Tree and Fish Bait Tree. It is fast growing, moderately short-lived  (70 years) and prefers full sunlight.

These trees are the only host for the Catalpa Sphinx Moth. Adult moths are seldom seen because they fly at dusk or night. Adult moths appear in early spring and deposit their eggs in masses on the underside of leaves. Eggs hatch in 5-7 days and young larvae feed together as leaf skeletonizers. Older larvae feed alone and consume whole leaves. In any one year, 3-4 generations may develop with the life cycle lasting approximately six weeks.

Individual Catalpa trees have different reactions to moth larvae feeding. Some trees are never attacked; others are heavily defoliated almost every year. If fish bait is your objective, then collect seed from trees proven to support moth larvae activity over the years. Seed can be planted in a garden area and grown until they are 1-2 years old or 18 inches tall. Transplant the seedlings during the winter months.

A few Catalpa trees will supply a single family with plenty of fish bait. Catalpa also makes a fine and unique yard tree. The flowers are beautiful, foliage tropical and the bean fruit interesting. Catalpas represent a Southern tradition. Plant a piece of cultural history — the Southern Catalpa.

Rebecca Bates is an MSU Extension-Lincoln County agent, and can be reached at 601-835-3460 or by e-mail at rebecca.bates@msstate.edu.