The term “Dynamic Duo” refers to the partnership of two superhero characters e.g., Batman & Robin, originally appearing in DC Comics, created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, in 1940. These two “caped crusaders” counted on one another and their unique abilities, when combined, typically resulted in a positive result. This past June, I was amazed at the reliability and what almost seemed a partnership of two deciduous ornamentals. Seldom on the same property, but obvious and abundant in suburban landscapes, both Kousa Dogwood, Cornus kousa and Northern Catalpa, Catalpa speciosa, seemed to be ever-present with a strong showing.
Northern Catalpa, for me, is a tree that demands attention. White, showy flowers, giant heart-shaped leaves and hanging bean-like pods always captivates my attention. Considered a fast-growing tree, Catalpa is “hardy” in zones 4-8. And while the mature size of this towering beauty is said to reach heights of 60-80 feet tall and 20-40 feet wide, there is one on my neighbor’s property, greeting me every morning as I step out our shower, looking west through our upstairs windows. Hovering at nearly 100 feet tall and 30 feet wide, this behemoth’ large, bell-shaped frilled flowers, complete with yellow streaks and purple spots, are something I look forward to in May and June. Northern Catalpa’s narrow, oval crown appreciates full sun to part shade, grows in most soil types and tolerates nearly any climatic condition Mother Nature throws at it in New Jersey. And while its large leaves and fruit are considered unfavorable by some, “the messiness of Northern Catalpa is not relegated to its bean-like pods and its large leaves add to the litter” (thespruce.com), I guess I just see things differently. Unique, orchid-like flowers, sometimes twisted trunks, immensely textured foliage and stringy bean pods far outweigh others negativity towards it. Hummingbirds and honeybees apparently agree with me as they flock to this tree every spring and this Catalpa is the sole host of the Catalpa sphinx moth. A native found in forests from Indiana to western Tennessee and Arkansas, Catalpa goes by many colorful common names; cigar tree, Indian bean tree, catawba and caterpillar tree, most referencing the fruit.
Kousa dogwood (Japanese Dogwood), Cornus kousa, is the other half of this “dynamic duo”. Being in the horticulture industry for over 30 years, I will tell you that Kousa dogwood is about as reliable and classic as you can get. An outstanding choice for home landscapes and urban areas, this tree has it all. White, star-like blooms, a canopy of layered horizontal branches, strong purple-scarlet fall color, pinkish-red edible fruit and fascinating bark; irregular patches showcasing a mosaic of sorts. And despite most thinking the large white flowers are just that, really modified leaves or bracts surrounding the small, greenish-yellow, insignificant flower, I let them have it. Mature specimens, 25 feet tall and wide, are suitable for nearly anyone’s landscape. Don’t be fooled by the “delicate beauty” of this tree, Cornus kousa is “tough as nails”. Japanese dogwood will not overwhelm your landscape, as it is classified as a slow to medium grower. And she seems to thrive almost anywhere. Should you have at least 3-4 hours of direct sun, Kousa dogwood will impress you in zones 5-8. And did I mention its cold hardiness, drought tolerance and disease resistance (including less susceptibility to dogwood anthracnose). Additionally, there seems to be no limit of cultivars to impress you. ‘Greensleeves’, ‘Lustgarten Weeping’, ‘Madame Butterfly I’, ‘Summer Fun’, ‘Venus’ and Rosy Teacups’ are just a few of my personal favorites. Be mindful however, it is common to have pink bracted types be white bracted the first year or two after being dug or bare rooted. When plants are stressed, they sometimes don’t put energy into the production of Anthocyanins that yield the darker color. An SAT word and science lesson I learned from my friend Bruce Crawford, Manager of Horticulture for the Morris County Parks Commission, and a Past President of the Garden State Gardens Consortium. Remember, one of the Commandments of gardening, “Nature doesn’t always play by the rules”. So, be patient… and remember, great gardens take time!
When Batman and Robin seem outnumbered by the nefarious character traits of Penguin, The Joker, Riddler and Catwoman, they seem to always prevail protecting Gotham City. For myself, when I see the likes of purple Plum trees, Prunus cerasifera ‘Thundercloud’, ridden with black knot or the weak branch structure of Bradford Pear tree, Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’, self-destructing in suburban landscapes, it’s refreshing to see the strong character of Northern Catalpa and Kousa dogwood prevail and show their strength. Giving hope that good partnerships will continue to triumph in our landscapes.