World of Wonders: Catalpa Tree

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In World of Wonders, Aimee Nezhukumatathil describes her early relationship with the catalpa tree as “…shade from persistent sun and shelter from unblinking eyes…”. My early relationship with the catalpa tree is much different. I didn’t worry about too much sun and no one stared at me. I’m white and lived in a white area, Nezhukumatathil is a woman of color (born to a Filipina mother and a father from South India) lived in a white area as a child.

The catalpa tree is probably the first tree I was able to identify and that’s because every house on the block had at least one in their front yard. Ours was to the left of the house, as you looked out a front room window (to the right of the house if you were looking at the house from the street). It was very tall and had a very thick trunk (at least that’s how I remember it). I was pleased, last year, to be able to identify a catalpa for my son’s tree-savvy girlfriend.

Because my childhood street was lined with catalpa trees, I was often tempted to ask the city to rename our street Catalpa Street (instead of the unfortunate Heine Avenue). I never did ask, but I wonder if they’d even consider it. I mean, who wants to live on a street that was a synonym for butt?

Once, when I was maybe 7 or 8, perhaps younger, I noticed baby catalpa trees growing beneath our tree. I was so happy to see the tree had babies that I wanted to help, so I brought a watering can (or maybe it was just a bucket) and watered the babies. As soon as I started pouring water on the babies I became soaked from above. At first I was so terrified that the tree thought I was harming her babies so she treated me to the same event that I and ran away from the tree, but then saw that even out from beneath the branches the water poured down. Then I realized that we’d just experienced a typical late-summer sudden downpour. I never did water the baby catalpas again.

Many years later I realized that the baby catalpas were not actually catalpas, but weeds with similarly shaped leaves. Even later I’ve discovered their name — velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti) and whenever I see one I remember (and sometimes tell someone nearby) the story of being watered by a tree.

If you go to Heine Avenue today, you’ll see very few, if any, catalpa trees. Over the years they became victims of storms, and old age. In fact, looking at a 2018 Street View of Heine Avenue, the only remaining catalpa tree is around the corner on Highland.

One storm I vividly recall happened when I was about the same age as the vengeful tree incident. I’d been playing with neighbor kids and suddenly the wind began blowing. The mother at whose house I’d been playing called us all inside and we went to the basement*. When we came out of the basement and the mother walked me home there were at least two catalpas down blocking the street. For years afterwards the neighbors talked about being in “the tail end of a tornado” although, in hindsight, it was probably a derecho**.


*Apparently, and with good cause, my parents were beside themselves with worry. From what I remember, the mother whose basement I was in wouldn’t let me run home — she thought it was that dire. I think that at some point during the storm the host family finally answered their phone (at that time folks only had one phone) and told my parents I was safe. My parents were angry that the host family didn’t call them to tell them I was okay.

**Coincidently the only other derecho I have been in (a few years ago), I was again at a friends house and my worried family (husband and children) had to track me down.

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