heart-shaped green leaves sprout
from the lightning-blasted trunk
of the old catawba
This tall catawba bears a sinuous scar where lightning log ago seared the trunk from bottom to top. The hollowed base opens like a buttressed knave in a cathedral, harboring a mystical font surrounded by a host of heart-shaped leaves from suckers sprouting out of the damaged base. The leaves of the catawba are large, up to a foot long, providing copious shade and shelter, which makes the tree popular with birds. The catawba tree derives its name from the Catawba tribe who lived on the banks of the Catawba River, a tributary of the Wateree River in the Carolinas. The Catawba were known in their own language as the Kawahcatawbas, "the people of the river." Due to a transcription error by the botanist who first described the tree, it is also called catalpa. Another folk name for the catawba is fish bait tree, because it attracts green and yellow caterpillars, the larva of the catalpa sphinx moth, which make excellent live bait. The caterpillars are so voracious that they can defoliate an entire tree, but it will usually recover and send up new sprouts. The catawba grows rapidly, as much as two feet a year when young, and survives in most conditions, from caterpillar infestation, poor soil, polluted cities and windswept prairies, where pioneers took the hardy trees to plant on their new homesteads. This huge specimen could be 150 years old. It stands not far from Henn Mansion, built in 1857 by Bernhardt Henn, a pioneer banker in Fairfield, Iowa, after it was founded in 1836.