The Woodland Cemetery Catalpa

        Hidden in a corner of Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines stands one of the most impressive northern catalpa trees, Catalpa speciosa, I have ever seen. Although many of the grandest catalpa trees that I remember seeing when I was a child are now gone, a few like the one in Woodland Cemetery stand as prominent reminders of days gone by. Once a popular tree to plant, catalpas fell out of favor, undoubtedly because many property owners considered the mess made by the catalpa to outweighs its unique beauty. I have been pleased to see that more catalpas are starting to be planted again, but we may never see it as prominent as it was decades ago. 

        One of my first memories of a catalpa is associated with a bookmobile, a mobile library, from the 1960’s. Near the corner of E. 9th St. and Boyd Ave. in Des Moines is where my sister and I would go to visit our local mobile library during the summer months. With limbs that overhung the bookmobile was this amazing tree with huge leaves, flowers that resembled popcorn and distinctive long slender seedpods. I don’t know if I even knew what kind of a tree this was back then but I still have fond memories of that tree, even though the bookmobile and the catalpa have been gone for many years.


 In the early 1970’s, I found the first really big catalpa that I remember seeing. It was a magnificent specimen with a trunk 5’ in diameter which stood in Panora, Iowa. Since the first listing of Iowa champion trees, the Panora catalpa, and at least three other champions, have come and gone, including one in West Union that was over 19’ in circumference! I have been aware of the Woodland Cemetery catalpa for many years, but when I first started measuring big trees, this one was not exceptionally large. 

       While bigger catalpas had their reign at the top, the Woodland Cemetery catalpa bided its time just waiting and growing. I wish I had measured it 40 years ago because it would be fascinating to see how much it has grown in that time. 

        There are currently three large catalpas vying for state champion status. One of these also grows in Des Moines and the other tree resides in rural Lee County. The Lee county tree has a circumference of 17’6”, but it is not as tall, and the other Des Moines tree is taller with a height of 86.5’, but it has a smaller trunk. With a circumference of 16’7”, a height of 76.5’, and a crown spread of 58’, in my opinion the Woodland Cemetery catalpa is better proportioned and has more character than the other two competitors. Someone else may disagree with my assessment of rank, but I doubt any tree lover would not be impressed by this exemplary catalpa.

          The Woodland Cemetery tree is in relatively good condition despite having some branches lopped off several years ago by someone that apparently had no pruning knowledge. Other trees in the cemetery fared worse. Many of the trees in the cemetery now have dead limbs because of the poor pruning and some of the oaks died after the abuse! How does this happen in a Des Moines city cemetery?


             I currently know of two unmeasured catalpas that could possibly dethrone the trio of contenders, but when considering size and form, I believe the Woodland Cemetery catalpa is a step above any other known catalpas in Iowa. I have enjoyed visiting the Woodland Cemetery catalpa in every season and look forward to future visits for many years to come.

 Contributed by Mark Rouw