Northern catalpa

One of the things I love the most about my Pittsburgh apartment building is that it’s situated right next to a huge northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) tree. And as I live on the top floor, the tree’s leaves come right up close to the windows of my sun room, where I do most of my remote graduate work. For this reason, I’ve gotten to spent a lot of time with the tree over the years and seemed to have bonded with it. Many times, the tree has been the only being that was there with me when I would stay up ‘til the wee hours of the morning, intensely typing on my laptop to meet some deadline. Sometimes, I would subject the tree to listening to my ramblings as I practiced giving a seminar presentation, and, bless its heart, the tree never judged me for it. But most of all, I appreciate those times when I’d take a break from my studies to gaze at the tree through the window, and its beauty would somehow relax me and give me strength to keep going.

The northern catalpa tree outside of my apartment building in Pittsburgh.

The northern catalpa tree through the sun room window.

Because of my attachment to the northern catalpa, I pay special attention to its status throughout the year and have gotten to know a decent amount about its biology. Now that it’s finally spring, for instance, I’m delighted that the tree has recently gotten back some of its most beautiful and characteristic traits, such as its large, heart-shaped, bright green leaves and long, bean-like seed pods that hang all around its branches. Because of these ornamental properties, the northern catalpa is widely planted across the United States, where it is native (USDA, NRCS. 2022). Fittingly, the name catalpa actually comes from a Cherokee word meaning ‘bean tree,’ and as a researcher of plants in the bean family (Fabaceae or Leguminosae), the seed pods were of course the first thing that attracted my interest. In reality, however, this tree is not a legume. It belongs to the Bignoniaceae family, along with many other ornate species of large trees and flowering plants you may see planted around cities and gardens such as the blue jacaranda and wax begonia. Later in the spring, I look forward to when the tree will start making flowers. These will be pollinated by bees during the day and moths at night, and then will fall like autumn leaves to sprinkle the path up to my apartment building with little white spots.

Other Bignoniaceae species. Left: Blue Jacaranda (Photo Credit: SOPA Images/LightRocket/ Getty Images). Right: Wax Begonia (Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Christopher_PB).
Northern catalpa flowers. Photo credit: David D. Taylor 2013.

Admittedly, it wasn’t until I started studying plant biology in college that I truly started to pay attention to the plants around me. This lack of attention to plants actually has a name, it’s called ‘plant awareness disparity’ (PAD) and it’s pervasive in modern life, despite the fact that plants account for 80% of the world’s total biomass and we depend on them for our essential human needs such as oxygen, food, and medicine (Bar-On et al. 2018, Brownlee et al., 2021; Parsley 2020). A big consequence of PAD is that plant conservation receives less attention and funding (Balding and Williams 2016). By taking some time to notice of the flora around us, however, we can combat PAD and support plant life. The website Plant Love Stories (www.plantlovestories.com) is full of inspiring, everyday stories of human-plant relationships (see LINK COMING SOON for a compilation piece I helped write that features many excellent plant love stories from University of Pittsburgh undergraduate students).

Although I know it can be easy to think of plants as the scenery to the movie that is your life, I am sure everyone could identify a plant that has made some meaningful connection with them as the northern catalpa has done for me. What plant has impacted you?

References

Balding, M., & Williams, K. J. H. (2016). Plant blindness and the implications for plant conservation. Conservation Biology, 30(6), 1192–1199. https://doi.org/10.1111/COBI.12738.

Bar-On, Y. M., Phillips, R., & Milo, R. (2018). The biomass distribution on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(25), 6506–6511. https://doi.org/10.1073/PNAS.1711842115/SUPPL_FILE/1711842115.SAPP.PDF.

Brownlee, K., Parsley, K., & Sabel, J. (2021). An Analysis of plant awareness disparity within introductory Biology textbook images. Journal of Biological Education,  https://doi.org/10.1080/00219266.2021.1920301.

Parsley, KM. (2020) Plant awareness disparity: A case for renaming plant blindness. Plants, People, Planet, 2, 598– 601. https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.10153

USDA, NRCS. 2022. The PLANTS Database (http://plants.usda.gov, 05/21/2022).