Catalpa Trees

Showy Catalpa flowers. Photo by Bryn Scriver.

If you look just to your left down the wall toward the lake as you pass through the stone wall entrance at Frautschi Point, you’ll see trees that seem almost to twist themselves into corkscrews. These are catalpas. They are quite old, but they are not native to this place.

They were planted here because of their unusual aesthetic qualities, to decorate the entrance of this land when it was a private estate. They also represent some of the original plantings that were intended to enhance the beauty of the carriage road that is now called Lake Mendota Drive. Originally constructed by the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association at the turn of the twentieth century, the route dates to the earliest phase of park creation in the city of Madison. These trees-along with the other large specimens that you can still see lining the road to the south-are living monuments to that great park-building era in American urban history.

Catalpas are strange trees, and these are well worth studying before you continue your walk on Frautschi Point. The one at the entrance is so hollow you can look right through it. It’s a little hard to believe it’s still alive, and yet it still blooms and seeds quite beautifully every year. How long will it survive? No one can say. But it is a wonderful reminder that the essence of a tree’s life lies not in the heartwood of its trunk, but in the thin layer of cambium just beneath its outer bark.

The contorted trunks of catalpas make them fascinating to observe, but be sure also to look at the way they’ve grown into the fence line that was erected at about the same time they were being planted. If you look closely, you’ll even find fence wire that is now running right through the tree, the branches completely engulfing the rusted fence.

Please don’t harm these old trees. They may not be native to this place, but they bear witness to its past in quite a remarkable way if only you take the time to learn their story.

Photo by William Cronon.