Chariton's catalpa trees are in bloom this week, so pay attention. It's a pretty impressive, although short-lived, show.
These flowering trees, some of them immense, are northern catalpa (or Catalpa speciosa) --- not native to southern Iowa, rather to 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 United States.
Big seed pods that some find annoying are the trees' only major disadvantage.
Early Chariton entrepreneur Smith H. Mallory probably is responsible for introducing the catalpa to Lucas County. He imported 30,000 young trees during 1882 and while many were planted on Brook Farm, his 1,000-acre spread just north of town, he also gave many away, initially. Here's how The Chariton Patriot described the trees' arrival in its edition of April 12, 1882:
Mr. Mallory has received 30,000 young Catalpa trees which he will set out near his home which will soon be one of the attractions of "Ilion." This tree is a native of the south, but is cultivated in many northern localities on account of its rapid growth, its beautiful appearance and its value for posts and many other uses. If cultivated for two years the shade is then sufficient to kill out all weeds and further attention is not necessary. Eighty acres of these trees will make a grand fortune for any Iowa man who is able to wait about twelve years. The best railroad ties are of this wood --- it will last a long time in the ground as well as out of it. It has been established that trees of this kind absorb all malaria and prevent sickness; for this cause they are not expensive and should be set out on every farm and town lot.
Later on, catalpa starts were available from the Mallory operation, as advertised in The Democrat of April 28, 1887: "Those who want catalpas for shade and ornamental trees can get them by applying to A.O. Parmer on S.H. Mallory's farm north of the city, age 25 cents each. Special rates on large numbers."
Apparently quite a few Lucas Countyans did buy into catalpa's entrepreneurial potential. Joseph Braden, for example, was offering for sale during 1894 3,000 catalpa trees, 10 to 15 feet high, apparently to be harvested from property he owned and trimmed into fence posts.
During 1895, catalpas were planted on the courthouse lawn and in June of that year, Jessie (Mallory) Thayer threw a big party at the Ilion, "artistically decorated with catalpa blossoms and roses." June wedding reports suggest that catalpa blossoms often were incorporated into bridal bouquets. There are reports of rural churchyards --- like Graceland north of Lucas --- being bordered with catalpas.
As the years passed, catalpas were planted nearly everywhere --- in lawns, around farmyards and in groves. As late as the 1950s, seasoned catalpa fence posts were offered for sale in Chariton newspapers.
But no one got rich off of catalpas and by the 1950s, they were out of favor. Few plant catalpas these days for ornamental or other purposes --- but those that remain still bloom in June just to remind us of how beautiful they are.