The chitalpa is as unlikely a tree as one might imagine. After all, who would’ve thought the cross between the catalpa (not the most desirable shade tree) and the desert willow (one could hardly describe it as a stately specimen) would turn out so well? But it certainly did.

Chitalpa habitat

Chitalpa grows larger than desert willow and looks beautiful by itself or in a grouping.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Chitalpa bloom closeup

Most chitalpas produce large, orchid-like, white flowers, but ‘Pink Dawn’ features pink blooms with yellow throats.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Chitalpa flowers

Like its desert willow parent, chitalpa begins flowering in spring and continues until frost.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Chitalpa branching

Chitalpa has strong, multi-trunked branches that create an open canopy.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Perhaps A. Russanov of the Botanic Garden of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences in Uzbekistan didn’t feel the same way about the parent trees when he created the hybrid between Chilopsis linearis (desert willow) and Catalpa bignonioides (Southern catalpa) – both members of the Bignoniaceae, or trumpet vine family. That was back in 1964, when relations were icy between the US and the Soviet Union. The cross finally made its way to the US in 1997, when Robert Hebb of the New York Botanic Garden introduced it. The hybrid remained unnamed until the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens in Claremont, CA, gave it the common name “chitalpa.” The gardens also named two chitalpa cultivars: ‘Morning Cloud’ (with white flowers) and ‘Pink Dawn’ (with pale purplish-pink flowers and pale yellow throats).

Chitalpa carries some of the best traits of both parents, yet it’s sterile, so it doesn’t produce the abundant, messy seedpods of either. What’s more, its mature flowers don’t drop on sidewalks, causing a slippery goo, as does the desert willow on occasion.

Though not as widely grown as desert willow, chitalpa (scientifically known as X Chitalpa tashkentensis) has a lot going for it. For one thing, it appears to be more tolerant of poorly drained soils than desert willow, and it produces larger, orchid-like flowers. Its floral display begins in May or June and extends until frost, unlike the once-in-the-spring-flowering catalpa. Chitalpa flowers are borne in large clusters, each containing 15- to 40-inch-long florets that attract butterflies, bees and hummingbirds.

Chitalpa is a fast-growing, multi-trunked deciduous tree that branches near the base and creates an oval canopy. It has an open limb structure, allowing filtered sun to pass through and grass to grow beneath. Its desert willow-like, glossy green leaves are about 1 inch wide and can grow up to 6 inches long.

Reaching about 25 feet high and wide, chitalpa falls between its parents in size, but its appearance favors desert willow. It has the same open, breezy likeness of desert willow and is surprisingly resistant to damage from summer windstorms. This beauty is considered drought-tolerant (like desert willow) and is fairly hardy, surviving temperatures as low as 0 degrees F (USDA hardiness Zone 6). Its leaves and stems may suffer damage in cold weather, though it returns in spring from surviving roots. While wonderful for desert regions, you’ll rarely find chitalpa in Eastern or Southeastern gardens because of its limited cold hardiness in the North and its susceptibility to catalpa worms and powdery mildew in the South.

Mountain States Wholesale Nursery in Litchfield Park, AZ, grows ‘Pink Dawn’. Marketing Director Dennis Swartzell believes the cultivar performs better in cooler areas as opposed to desert climates, where he finds occasional bark splitting, dieback and leaf lesions. There are also reports of Alternaria leaf spot, suckering at the base of the plant and premature leaf drop when it’s overwatered. Yet, those maladies aren’t reported as serious problems in many other parts of the Southwest.

Like its desert willow parent, chitalpa is propagated asexually by cuttings, as it produces no seed – a feature favored by many homeowners who tire of sweeping up the progeny of oaks, elms, redbuds, silver maples, mimosas and other common landscape trees.

It seems as if people are starting to take notice of chitalpa’s terrific attributes. Several cities in Western states have begun recommending chitalpa as a street tree, a drought-tolerant selection for urban settings and for use under utility lines. And more and more homeowners are enjoying how chitalpa attracts beneficial insects and hummingbirds – not to mention the fact it’s a smaller flowering tree that fits in well with many contemporary landscapes.

Again, who would have thought such a terrific tree would be the result of a cross between desert willow and catalpa? Chitalpa certainly inherited the best of both parents, so it really is an outstanding performer in just about any desert garden!