Friday, June 10, 2011

The great catalpa show

The great June catalpa show has ended a little prematurely here because of heavy rains that began early Thursday. Most of the blossoms now are piled in soggy drifts on the grass, but it was a good run anyway.

These flowering trees, some of them immense, are northern catalpa (or Catalpa speciosa) --- not native to southern Iowa. Their original preference was for locations farther down the mid-Mississippi valley. They are extremely hardy, however, have been planted widely and now may be found all over the eastern three-quarters of the country.

One reason for their popularity is their beauty; the other, the fact catalpa wood resists rot and the trees grow fast --- so they were widely planted as potential fence posts. On the other hand, they're messy: Blankets of fallen blossoms in June, tough foot-long seed pods and big leaves to litter the ground in the fall.

Chariton has so many catalpas thanks primarily to Smith H. Mallory, the railroad contractor, banker and general entrepreneur who built the legendary Ilion --- or Mallory's Castle (now only a memory).

In the early 1880s, while building railroads in the West and Southwest, he decided that catalpa wood might be a good renewable source for railroad ties and brought tens of thousands of catalpa starts to Chariton. Many of these he planted in big plantations on his 1,000-acre Brook Farm, which stretched north from the Ilion grounds in north Chariton. Others he sold or gave away to be planted around town, in neighboring towns and on farms.

The catalpas never were used for their intended purpose, however. By the time of Mallory's 1903 death, he had retired from railroad building --- and the trees hadn't grown quite fast enough to be experimented with. A remnant of a catalpa plantation still can be found north of town, but the trees there were planted close together to ensure that they would shoot straight up and lack presence.

Enough of the trees remain around town, however, to serve as beautiful reminders of Mallory and his scheme, although it's doubtful that many of us think about exactly why they're here and are just grateful that they are (unless we have to clean up underneath one).

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