Plant Profile – Catalpa bignonioides

Catalapa bignonioides, a deciduous tree commonly known as the Indian Bean, will grow happily in any well drained soil in full sun. Growing to a grand height of over 12 metres with an 8 metre spread, this magnificent native of the south eastern US (named after Red Indian) is structurally pleasing and is suitable for a spacious garden or arboretum. Introduced to the UK in the 1700s, notable examples include a Woodland Trust’s ‘Tree of the Year’ 2020 finalist in Monmouth’s town square, planted in 1900 and a vast specimen at RHS Wisley.

This marvellous tree is growing in Walsall Arboretum, clearly enjoying the space allotted to it! Autumn sees its leaves turning a delicious golden hue in an early morning sunlight. This example will be a tree to rival its Wisley counterpart if it keeps on thriving!

In summer, the tree is smothered in beautiful white bell shaped flowers – they’re very reminiscent of a Cattleya orchid. The large ovate leaves, seen here with the sun shining through them, provide structure and are strikingly ‘green’!

In Autumn, the tree bears string like bean shaped seed pods – rather strange looking and certainly not edible!

The Indian Bean tree can be grown to great effect in small gardens as it responds well to pollarding. The best time to pollard an Indian Bean is between late January and March and for successful results, you should grow a young specimen to a desired height, usually 90-150cm before starting to prune. Choose 3-6 of the strongest, straightest branches to form a framework which can then be used to guide to re-pruning each year. The leaves will grow to the size of a dinner plate, adding structure to a border, as demonstrated in Maureen Allen’s ‘Hidden Gem’ garden in Walsall in the West Midlands (above). Worthy of note, the tree is unlikely to flower unless some ‘last year’s growth’ is left in place.

Most plants have a mythical story and the Indian Bean tree is no exception. Medicinally, folklore has it that the bark can be used to make an antiseptic tea (amongst other uses) – I’m not recommending this and will stick to admiring its obvious aesthetic value!