A Gardening Journal

The Best Season Ever: Black-leaved Catalpa

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Few hardy trees pair foliage size with depth of color. Purple beeches, purple smoke bushes: Their leaves are only medium sized. The lacy leaves of purple Japanese maples are only a bit larger. But even young leaves of "black" catalpa soon become much larger than those of any purple-leaved beech or Japanese maple. At maturity, their span will be greater than that of your outstretched fingers.

 

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The list of large- and purple-leaved hardy trees is short. Besides the black-leaved catalpa here, Catalpa x erubescens 'Purpurea', I can think of just Acer platanoides 'Crimson King', Aesculus chinense, Corylus maxima 'Purpurea', and Liriodendron chinense. The chestnut and tulip are, indeed, native to China—and so is one of the parents of Catalpa x erubescens, C. ovata. Thank you, China! Acer platanoides and Corylus maxima are both native to Europe and western Asia. Keep trying, North and South America.

 

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With all five, the foliage color is most intense in young foliage. If the tree can be encouraged to grow densely as well as compactly, the result is a profusion of stunning dark growth that can be savored without first hiring a bucket truck to bring you to the top of the canopy. The variety of leaf hues and sizes is even more striking when you peer beneath the surface of the eager new growth.

 

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Happily, black-leaved catalpa and Chinese tulip both respond readily to the very handling that maximizes the show. Hard pruning keeps the trees' overall size in check, while also stimulating the production of the profuse new growth with the most intense coloring. 

 

Here's how to grow variegated catalpa—and, also, a look at its intense variegation in Spring and early Summer. Its hardiness and handling are the same as those of black-leaved catalpa.

 

Here's another hardy tree whose young foliage is deep burgundy: Chinese tulip, Liriodendron chinense

 
 
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