Stuart Dybek opens his short story “The Palatski Man” with this line:
“He reappeared in spring, some Sunday morning, perhaps Easter, when the twigs of the catalpa trees budded and lawns smelled of mud and breaking seeds.”
Though not set in Logan Square, the reference to the catalpas that dot Chicago’s byways indicates their place in the pantheon of Chicago street trees.
In mid-summer, when they erupt in drifts of enormous, tropical-looking white flowers, catalpas are one of the city’s unique treasures. Especially in Logan, where they line the boulevards at regular intervals, they are nothing short of a spectacle when in full bloom. Anyone who has traversed Kedzie, Logan, or Sacramento/Humboldt in late June and early July is familiar with the slick of fallen blossoms on the sidewalk and with the sight of the purple and yellow-throated flowers dangling from the branches at eye level. In the fall and winter, too, they have their charms: the rattling seed pods and jagged, lightning-fork branches are spooky and atmospheric—particularly so when studded with crows and starlings, shrieking their arguments into the freezing mist.
It’s a good thing that Chicago’s early foresters paid little heed to an 1850 article in the Prairie Farmer that suggested catalpas weren’t hardy in Illinois. An 1892 report from the West Chicago Park Commissioners stated that in the previous year, 161 catalpas had been planted in Palmer Square, 55 had been planted in Logan, and 294 had been planted on the boulevards in the previous year.
It would be remarkable if the trees we see today were the same ones planted that year: catalpas are thought to be relatively short-lived, topping out at around 60 years old by most accounts. I wasn’t able to find evidence of later planting, though, so if you know of any, please note them in the comments!
The planting of these trees, and the planting of many other species, coincided with the development of the Chicago parklands. Proposed in 1849, development was not actually begun until the 1870s when Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City, began designing a ring of parks and boulevards intended to beautify the industrial city landscape. Our links in what became known as the Emerald Necklace following the 1893 World Columbian Exposition were designed by William Le Baron Jenney. Between 1870 and 1874, Jenney mapped out Garfield, Humboldt, and Douglas parks, and the boulevards that connect them. These features were later refined by Daniel Burnham and Jens Jensen.
In addition to the catalpas that, to me at least, are the defining trees of the Logan stretch of the boulevard system, ashes, beeches, elms, Kentucky coffee trees, maples, oaks, and tulip trees were also planted along these expansive thoroughfares, designed with outer service roads for the residences and an inner carriageway.
In recent years, ashes have been of particular concern due to their infestation by invasive emerald ash borers, a type of beetle originally from Asia. The larvae of these beetles burrow beneath the bark of ash trees, slowly killing them. Those who walk by Palmer Square Park regularly will have noticed a sculpture on the Kedzie size: a hand emerges from the ground and grips a dead tree stump, upon which crawls an enormous insect. Called “The Emerald Ash Borer,” the sculpture is by artist Carrie Fischer. It is one of many commissioned by the Chicago Tree Project, an initiative aimed at turning dying trees into art installations.
Luckily, our catalpas are as of yet unscathed by invasive pests. They are, however, host to the caterpillars of the catalpa sphinx moth. Apparently, catalpas are sometimes planted in the hopes of attracting these moths, which lay their eggs on catalpa leaves. The eggs develop into juicy larvae that are favored by fishermen as bait.
The catalpas of Logan are likely the northern species, Catalpa speciosa. There is a slightly shorter southern species, Catalpa bignonioides, which is unlikely to survive Chicago’s harsh winters. In fact, most of the members of the family Bignoniaciae, to which catalpas belong, are tropical. Among the notable species in the family are the South American jacarandas, heavily planted in such cities as Los Angeles, where they explode in lavender profusion each spring—a more flamboyant version of our own display of lacey white panicles from their temperate relatives. We are lucky to have evaded the southern species: apparently, its leaves stink. Additionally, there are two other species of catalpa, native to China and the West Indies.
In 1900, an engineer from Indiana began evangelizing the benefits of this striking shade tree, which boasts large heart-shaped leaves that taper into points. They are now common throughout much of the United States. While efforts by railroad companies to establish plantations along train lines for later harvest as replacement railroad ties failed due to pests and poor soil conditions, they continued to spread and now serve as reliable street trees throughout much of the country.
The name “catalpa” derives from a Creek or Cherokee word for “winged head”—if you’ve looked into one of the tree’s striking tubular flowers, you understand. They do have something of a face, in an abstract sort of way. Because they don’t close, the flowers are of great value to both diurnal and nocturnal pollinators. Bees love them by day and moths love them by night. The seeds, which stay on the trees well into winter, are contained in long, bean-like pods.
So, the next time you take a stroll down one of our greenways—widely imitated in other cities throughout the world—take a moment to appreciate these stately sentinels.
It’s worth noting that, as the older trees along the boulevards die, they need replacement.
There is a GoFundMe campaign sponsored by the Logan Square Preservation Society that is attempting to raise money for planting new trees on the boulevards to replace those that have expired. Take a moment to check it out and consider donating so that Logan’s shaded splendor can be appreciated by future generations.
Featured photo: Richard Pallardy