Catalpa trees are native to North America, but they did not grow on Nantucket until they were brought to the island in 1911. That spring a thousand Catalpa seedlings were offered for free to Massachusetts schools by the Gilchrist Company of Boston as part of a promotion of their new department store. Nantucket’s Academy Hill School accepted some of the free trees and grew them for a while on the school grounds before giving them to students for planting at their homes.
No more Catalpas were brought to the island. All the Nantucket trees that put forth extravagant piles of white flowers in July each year followed by long seedpods in the fall are either centenarians or their offspring.
There is a splendid original 1911 Catalpa on West Chester Street. Two of its offspring are growing across the street in the wet dip between the street and Gull Island. There is also a splendid row of Catalpas along Prospect Street on the left approaching the Old Mill.
To learn more about Nantucket’s Catalpa trees, see Frances Karttunen’s book, Nantucket’s North Shore: A Neighborhood History, available from the NHA Museum Shop and from Spinner Publications of New Bedford.