Memere’s four catalpa trees finally came back to life after we thought they might be lost to the late spring frost in May. Warm April weather caused four trees in our front yard in Topsham to bud earlier than usual. We panicked when the early May frost froze the new leaves on the branches.

Much to our surprise, all four of the trees we worried about are now blooming.

Thoughtful neighbors offered their sympathy about the potential loss of the trees. We told them the story about how we happened to have four catalpas growing in our front yard. They are the cuttings from a catalpa tree Memere Rose L’Heureux grew in the front yard of her Ridgeway home in Sanford. It’s a tradition among at least four generations of our family to have at least one cutting from this flowering deciduous tree growing in our yards, wherever we live. As a result, Memere’s catalpa trees are growing in Maine, Massachusetts, Virginia and soon in Maryland.

Adult catalpas throw seeds from the bean pods that grow from their aromatic flowers. One member of our family who lives in Plymouth, Mass., usually finds five or six young catalpas sprouting in his yard every summer. He puts them in pots to give away to relatives and friends. Catalpas are very hardy and they grow quickly.

A few years ago, I wrote a column about our family’s tradition of sharing Memere’s catalpa trees. It was read on the Internet by Kees van der Have, a native of the Netherlands, who lives in the Dordogne region of southwest France. He read the column with interest because of the 12 catalpa trees growing on the property he owns. Since he is not a native of France, he contacted me to ask if the tradition of passing catalpa trees to generations of family members might be a French custom.

“Well, it is in our family,” I responded.

Van der Have sometimes trades e-mail messages with me about how our catalpas are doing on each side of the Atlantic Ocean. I sent him pictures of our trees in bloom.

Catalpas don’t like to be cold. Van der Have said the first fall frost in France causes all 12 of his catalpas to shed their leaves at the same time. This massive shedding creates noise, especially when it happens at night, he says.

Other family members shared our concern about the possibility of losing our trees to the spring frost. We reasoned that this year could not be the first time for a frost to nip the catalpas while they were budding.

Nonetheless, we became discouraged when one well-meaning neighbor offered his chain saw to cut down our bleak-looking catalpas. Thankfully, patience and tree counseling among our family members prevailed.

Today, three of our catalpas are perky and consistently sprouting flowers. Yet, one continues to struggle. We intend to nurse this weak outlier back to a vigorous tree again, presuming it doesn’t endure any further stress. We have since learned that deciduous trees have a reserve which allows them to grow new leaves following a frost. Trees only have one such reserve, however, so a second frost would likely have caused them to die.

Memere loved les belles fleurs that are the catalpas’ orchid-looking blossoms. They once shed their fragrance on the front porch of her Ridgeway house for all the years she lived there. We share Memere’s Franco-American culture with our family by nurturing the offspring of her favorite tree.


Juliana L’Heureux can be contacted at: [email protected]