Empress Tree (Paulownia tomentosa): History, Characteristics, Growth Rate & Problems

The Empress Tree (Paulownia tomentosa), also known as the Princess Tree, Royal Paulownia, or Foxglove Tree, is a deciduous hardwood tree native to central and western China. The tree produces large, showy flowers before its leaves in the spring, which are light lilac-purple in color and resemble foxgloves. This tree grows rapidly with the potential to grow up to 20 feet in its first year and reach maturity in just ten years.

Historical records indicate the Empress Tree’s presence in China as early as the 2nd-3rd century BC. In Japan, a tradition emerged around 18 century where families would plant an Empress Tree upon the birth of a daughter. The tree would then be harvested for wood when the daughter came of age to be married.

The 18th century marked the Empress Tree’s arrival in Europe. Carl Peter Thunberg, a student of Carl Linnaeus, encountered the tree in Japan during his travels with the Dutch East India Company in the mid-1770s. The tree was later named Paulownia by Philip Franz Siebold, another German botanist working for the Dutch East India Company, in honor of Princess Anna Pavlovna of Russia.

The Empress Tree has also made its mark in literature, with the wood being used to create the Paulownia Seal, a symbol of the Japanese Imperial Family. The tree’s cultural significance is further highlighted in the Tale of Genji, a centerpiece of Heian literature.

In the 19th century, the Empress Tree was introduced to the West, first arriving in the United States. This first growing tree with its seeds that disperse readily was previously classified as invasive exotic species in North America, but recent data has called that into question as it is difficult to induce plants from seed when attempted under observation where it has undergone naturalisation in large areas of the Eastern US. This tree has also been introduced to Western and Central Europe, and is establishing itself as a naturalised species there as well.

Throughout history, the Empress Tree has also been used for a variety of purposes. Its wood is used to make charcoal for sketching and powder for fireworks, while the bark is used to make a dye. The leaves have even been used in vermicide preparations.

Characteristics of Empress Tree (Paulownia tomentosa)

Growth Habit: The Empress Tree has a fast-growing habit, often adding 15 feet each year to reach a mature height of 50 feet and width of 30 feet in just 10 years.

Leaves: The Empress Tree has large, heart-shaped leaves that can grow up to 12 inches wide. The leaves are dark green and glossy on top and velvety soft underneath, hence the species name “tomentosa” which means hairy in Latin.

Flowers: The Empress Tree produces beautiful, fragrant flowers in early spring, even before the leaves emerge. The flowers are violet-purple, foxglove-shaped, and borne in large clusters called panicles. The flowers have a sweet vanilla scent.

Fruits: The Empress Tree produces brown, capsule-like fruits that split open to release thousands of tiny winged seeds. These seeds can disperse long distances in the wind, potentially causing the tree to become invasive in some areas.

Other Characteristics

  • Growth Rate: It is one of the fastest-growing trees in the world, capable of growing 10 to 20 feet in its first year.
  • USDA Zone: The Empress Tree is hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9.
  • The stem of the Empress Tree is woody, with a smooth or ridged bark depending on the age of the tree.
  • Root System: The Empress Tree has a robust root system that can send up growth along the roots several feet out from the original tree. This can be beneficial for soil stabilization but can also damage sidewalks, driveways, or foundations if planted too close.
  • Lifespan: Moderate lifespan of 50-70 years, potentially longer with good care.
  • Soil: It prefers moist, well-drained soil but can grow in a variety of soil types as long as they are well-drained.
  • Messy: Large leaves and seed pods can create litter, requiring regular cleaning.
  • Weak branches: Has a weak branch structure that is susceptible to damage from wind, ice, or heavy snow.
  • Suckering: May send up suckers from the roots, creating unwanted growth around the base of the tree.

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