Close to Home: Grandmother's catalpas give family roots

By Juliana L’Heureux

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People walking past our Topsham home frequently stop to ask about the four catalpa trees in the front yard. One lady even called a local tree nursery to inquire about how to buy one.

Our family's catalpa trees are connected to a family heritage started in Sanford, where my Franco-American mother-in-law, Memere Rose Morin L'Heureux, started the tradition. As a result of her love for catalpas, four generations of Memere's trees connect us all to the two she grew in the front yard of her Sanford homes.

Each of her five children, her grandchildren and even a few great-grandchildren grow at least one catalpa tree, all from Memere's own trees.

"We don't grow just any catalpa trees," said Ann Lapoint Frechette of Alfred, a granddaughter of Memere L'Heureux. "We want Memere's trees."

Memere's two catalpas grew to more than 30 feet high, sprawling over the gabled roof of her family's screened front porch. The catalpas provided welcome summer shade to the family's Freemont Street house in Sanford's Ridgeway neighborhood. Memere transplanted her two trees from sprouts she dug up and took with her when the family moved in 1936 from Roberts to Freemont Street.

Shade notwithstanding, Memere especially admired the tree's lovely blossoms. She beamed like a sunflower at high noon when the exquisitely fragrant blossoms adorned the trees in early summer.

"Les belle fleurs," said Memere about her catalpa's fragrant blooms.

Our family tradition of growing Memere's catalpas began when we noticed sprouts of catalpa trees appearing in Memere's yard. Sprouts grow easily from the large bean pod seeds they throw off each summer. Rather than mow the sprouts down, we began transplanting them.

We discovered how surprisingly easy they are to transplant. My daughter-in-law left one of the tree sprouts in a pot in her garage over the winter; but it was still healthy enough to grow when she planted it in her Scarborough yard the next spring. They don't require much maintenance or special soil.

The trees grow amazingly fast. Actually, one particularly cold winter seriously damaged Memere's two Sanford trees, but the roots sprouted into two nearly full-grown replacements in about six years. In our 20 years' experience growing Memere's catalpas, we can raise a small twig into a medium-sized blooming tree within about six years of planting.

Memere's catalpa trees help our family to stay connected by our genealogical roots. We compare their growing progress like they are children. Of course, we're on the lookout for those tree sprouts to show up in the lawn or flower beds so we can pass them along to other family members. There's always room for one more of Memere's catalpas in our family's yard.

In Sanford, two 40-foot high descendents of her trees are growing on the yard at Storer and Main streets. Other descendents continue to grow in Sanford, Brunswick, Topsham, Scarborough and Alfred, as well as in Massachusetts and Virginia. They are literally part of our family's Franco-American roots.

Published in the September 3, 2008, Portland Press Herald.

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Copyright © 2008, Blethen Maine Newspapers and Juliana L'Heureux