Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa)

It was whilst painting in the Tuscan village of Stazzema amidst the Apuane mountain range around eighteen months ago, that I first became acquainted with the fascinating Catalpa Tree, commonly known as the ‘Indian Bean Tree’. So captivated was I by the stunning panoramic views that I had failed to notice the seemingly ordinary looking tree standing right beside me! As I began sketching out a painting of the distant view, and reflecting whether or not to include in the picture the overhead branches, I noticed what appeared to be long beans dangling amidst the enormous ovate leaves measuring some 20 cms across.

On my return home, I discovered the identity of the tree and of its native America origins. The name ‘Catalpa’ is possibly derived from an associated mispronunciation of a local tribe known as the Catawba people’s. However, an alternative explanation attributes the Latin name to the shape of the tree’s distinctive flower head.

During autumn 2015, quite by chance whilst driving through St. James’ Square, Monmouth, I discovered the most amazing specimen Catalpa believed to be one of the oldest and largest in the U.K., which I learnt had been planted around the year 1900. As it aged, the tree apparently became the focus of controversy. The County Council were set on cutting it down, due to health and safety issues. As parts of the tree were reckoned to be unstable with the estimated costs of the necessary treatment required to ensure its stability, prohibitive, and reckoned to have a limited life expectation to boot, it was condemned to be felled. The decision was met with fierce opposition and a local action group formed in defence of the life of the tree. After seeking additional assessments from local arboriculturists to the condition of the tree, it was declared to be “an outstanding part of our tree heritage and worthy of the effort and expense involved in its management.” Around a decade ago the tree finally received the treatment it deserved in order to prolong its life, and it now looks set to thrive for many-a-year!

Whilst I was tempted to get started on a painting there and then, I decided to delay the process until I’d observed the different aspects to its personality evident through the different seasons of the year. The following spring, I have to admit, I did question whether this aged Catalpa had had its day! Whilst the surrounding trees were all in leaf now, no sign of life in the tree was evident yet, despite the long beans still dangling from the previous autumn. The tree delights keeping the world in suspense! On my next visit however, I was delighted to see the tree not only in leaf, but it’s flowers ready to bloom…… if to announce the magnificence of life in this gem was well worth the wait!

I was now ready to begin my painting.