One of the most tropical looking of Virginia's trees is in full bloom: The lovely catalpa, sometimes referred to as the 'cigar tree', is a spectacular native, growing up to 100 ft. in height. It thrives in moist woods but can do well in full sun.
It is called the cigar tree due to its cylindrical fruits which grow 8-12 inches long (these make great fire starters when they are completely dry and can be gathered from the ground beneath the tree).
In the south, Catalpa bignonioides is native but it can grow in the north. It is differentiated from Catalpa speciosa due to smaller flowers with more pronounced purple spotting.
About mid-August to September, the huge catalpa leaves look skeletized - this is due to the striking catalpa sphinx caterpillar which, in outbreak years, can completely defoliate a tree.
However, even with heavy leaf damage, an established and otherwise healthy tree can recover and the caterpillars provide great food to bird populations, particularly when young. In a healthy ecosystem, the caterpillar populations are kept in check by parasitic wasps which lay their eggs on the exterior body (similar to tomato hornworms).
For an impressive landscaping tree, the catalpa is a great choice, however, it is best to plant it away from structures as the wood tends to be soft and small branches often get broken off in wind storms.