The Catalpa Tree


The NYTimes this morning has a story about catalpas and other out-of-fashion trees. It says the Catalpa Tree Appreciation Society is looking for members and I plan to sign up.

When we were living in the Paris suburbs I planted one of those huge square faux terracotta pots you find in garden centres with a little flame-like cyprus tree. The pot-with-tree sat on a flat roof outside our second-storey (or first, depending on whether you are North American or European) bedroom; the thought was for the cyprus to hide an ugly chimney, but I wasn't diligent and it died in early childhood.

The pot sat empty. Then one spring I spied a volunteer in the clayey dirt, a sprout with big juicy leaves like one of those avocadoes you grow on a kitchen ledge until eventually it's the avocado or the kitchen--you can't have both. The sprout put out more leaves, it thrived without much attention (like some children), and the leaves turned heart-shaped and big as dinner plates.

I had no idea what it was. There was an acacia in the yard, but it wasn't an acacia, and it definitely wasn't a yew tree, like the one that hung over the (neglected) compost heap, and it wasn't a maple--I'm Canadian, I know a maple tree when I see one. I liked this thing's independence. Water wasn't something I was about to provide: it had to be carried from the bathroom over a hardwood floor without spilling. The thing didn't seem to care if we went away for a month, or three.

Eventually I spotted a catalpa in a neighbour's garden and realised where my tree had come from. The flowers were beautiful, like wisteria. The seed pods were fun. I was glad I owned a catalpa. Growing up in British Columbia it didn't feel like part of my birthright. 

The tree was a teenager in tree-years when we sold the house and moved to a Paris apartment. We threw out a lot of stuff and left a lot more to the new owners, especially book shelves because they liked books. They stored our piano. They could use the Ikea bunk beds we no longer needed. We felt lucky to have them taking over the house with their two little girls.

But somehow I couldn't abandon the catalpa, in its big, ugly, by now really obviously faux, terracotta pot. There was a tiny back porch off the kitchen in the Paris apartment. The big, ugly etc. took up half the space. Now I could water it, watch the leaves flutter on a daily basis, wait for the flowers with which I was sure it would one day honour us. I bought a canvas director's chair for the other corner of the porch and in the evening I sat in it with a shot of scotch and watched my catalpa. I could even look up, four floors from the street, and admire it, the one plant on a stack of tiny concrete back porches, meant to house mops and buckets and brooms and serpillieres. 

One hot summer when we were away in California for my husband's work the catalpa died. I was sad. I tried to replace it, in the flower market on the Ile de la Cité where, between the Hotel Dieu and the market there are two rows of catalpas. Last autumn this was. No one had any catalpas for sale. I pointed out that there were six or eight planted in the pavement right next door. Yes, they said, and when they make seedlings we yank them out and throw them away. I settled for a little fluttery Mexican orange tree, but on my way home, trundling my bush behind me in a shopping cart, I broke some pods off the Hotel Dieu catalpa trees. 

And when I got home I planted them in the big, ugly faux terracotta pot.