This past Tuesday evening, violent thunderstorms roiled through Boston. During the maelstrom, a magnificent western catalpa tree (Catalpa speciosa2776*A, in the catalpa collection behind the lilacs) was struck by lightning. The massive surge of electricity through this tree resulted in a powerful explosion as liquid water in the wood was instantly turned to steam (whose volume is roughly 1,700 times greater—think of the power of a steam engine). The interface between the wood and the bark (the cambium) has very thin-walled cells, and this is where the explosive separation of tissues occurred.

Catalpa damaged by storm

On Wednesday morning, I made my way over to see the violent aftermath up close.  A massive sector of the bark from the top of the tree to the base had been blown off (left image), and shards of the bark could be found several hundred feet away! Time will tell if there are enough living tissues in the trunk and major branches to persist. But, for now, the leaves of the lower shoots (upper right image), as if unaware of the violence to the trunk, are doing fine and still getting water.  

The centenarian Arnold Arboretum accession 2776*A western catalpa began life in Waukegan, Illinois in the nurseries of the great catalpa promotor and grower Robert Douglas. Douglas, who planted over two and a half million seedlings of western catalpa in the American Midwest, believed in this species—fast growing, not picky about soils, and with rot-resistant wood —and two of his two and a half million made their way to the Arboretum in 1886 (for a wonderful article about the nineteenth century American fascination with catalpas, head over to Arnoldia here). Fortunately, the partner, accession 2776*B, still stands just yards away (lower right image, these two statuesque western catalpa specimens in winter outline in February of 2017). 

As with any museum, but especially so a museum of living objects like the Arnold Arboretum, provenance is everything: the history of collectors and the collected, the intersections of their lives, and the ongoing interplay of the collected in our own lives, as we play witness to the ongoing drama of these wonderful venerable fellow organisms who grace our everyday existence.