Biography of Durham’s Finest Tree* No. 10: Parkwood Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides)

by Wendy Diaz, EMGV

The 2016 Durham’s Finest Tree (DFT) nominations were evaluated in the fall of 2016. The winners were announced at the Trees Over Durham Forum on April 24th, 2017 in the Durham Arts Center. Of the sixteen trees nominated, seven met the criteria of a fine example of a tree species due to their size, historical importance or other meritorious significance.

The Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides) located on Revere Road in front of Parkwood Manor near the plaza and center of the Parkwood neighborhood is the second DFT winner in the South Durham subdivision of Parkwood. The first DFT winner in Parkwood was a White Ash (Fraxinus Americana)1 in 2015. The Parkwood Southern Catalpa won in the Large Category in 2016.

Parkwood Southern Catalpa with broad-rounded crown and symmetrical shape. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on October 29, 2016


The Parkwood Southern Catalpa is only 43 feet high with a trunk circumference of 85 inches and a canopy spread of 44 feet. The tree is fairly large and exhibits the classic desirable symmetrical shape but it does not reach the same dimensions as North Carolina’s Champion Big Tree located in a church cemetery in Guilford County with a height of 67 feet, circumference of 185 inches and a crown spread of 63 feet2.  

The Southern Catalpa is native to the southeastern states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Florida and prefers moist soils along streams and river banks. Catalpa is the name given to the tree by Native Americans3. It is a medium-sized deciduous tree that reaches heights of 30 to 40 feet with an irregular broad-rounded crown3. Its light green leaves are very broad (up 10 inches long by 6 inches wide) and heart-shaped at the base and short pointed at the tip. It is planted outside its native range and used as a street tree for its symmetrically rounded shape, large leaves, ornamental flowers and shade qualities, however, undesirable features are the unpleasant aroma when the leaves are crushed and brittle branches.


Heart-shaped, light green leaf of the Parkwood Southern Catalpa. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on October 29, 2016  

The Catalpa has a very showy orchid-like flower. The bell-shaped, white, fragrant flowers are up to 1.5 inches across with purple and inner markings. They bloom in May to June and are a special value to honey bees4. After flowers fade, long narrow pods up to 15 inches long1 appear and they mature in the fall to a dark brown color and split length-wise to disperse the seeds. The Southern Catalpa is also known by the common name of ‘cigar tree’ because of its long narrow seed pods3.

Rebekah D. Wallace, University of Georgia,
Mature long, narrow brown seedpods on the Parkwood Southern Catalpa. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on October 29, 2016

Local History

The Parkwood subdivision, which up until its development in the early 1960’s, was a very remote wooded area of Durham County5.  The first home was occupied in August, 19605 and the grand opening of the nearby Parkwood Shopping Center occurred on December 11, 19626.  The award-winning Parkwood neighborhood was linked to the development of the Research Triangle Park (RTP) to provide housing for RTP employees and the Parkwood HOA was one of the first homeowners associations formed in North Carolina on September 25th, 19607.

This pretty tree with unique dangling pods is easily accessible in Parkwood and if you find yourself in SoDu (South Durham) when it is blooming (May or June) or even in the fall, it is, at the very least, worth a glance from the car window.


  8. May 18, 2017 & August 10, 2017
  9. Four win in Durham’s Finest Trees contest” The Herald Sun-The Durham Herald, Durham, North Carolina Sunday, August 7, 2016 Page 6 (correction published on August 8, 2016)

* Durham’s Finest Trees program recognizes significant trees in Durham County, promotes discovery and ability to identify trees, and helps preserve the best examples of specific tree species, particularly native and those trees well adapted to Durham County. The program also promotes awareness of trees in our community and hopes to catalog fine examples of magnificent specimens of trees due to their size, setting, historical importance, or significant feature.

Durham naturalists and tree lovers of all ages are invited to submit their nominations for significant trees in Durham County now through October 1, 2018 for this year’s competition. The nomination period for 2017 is now closed. Trees on private or public property can be nominated in each of the three categories: largest, historical, or meritorious. Preference will be given to native North Carolina tree species. Non-native trees may be considered if they are of a species, subspecies, variety or cultivar proven to be relatively long-lived and well adapted to North Carolina. Winning trees nominated in 2017 will be recognized on Durham’s Arbor Day in 2018. Please read the official rules before submitting a nomination.

Durham’s Finest Trees awarded recognition to seven trees last spring as part of the Trees Over Durham Forum on April 24, 2017 held at the Durham Arts Council7. On March 6, 2016, four Durham trees (nominated in the 2015, the first year of the Durham’s Finest Tree program) located across the city and county were recognized for their size and significance during Durham’s Arbor Day ceremony at the Museum of Life and Science.8