Empress Tree – Paulownia tomentosa – All about Royal Empress Tree

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This is the empress tree-Paulownia tomentosa. An important bridge, culturally and economically, between our culture and that of Japan. The empress tree is a native of Japan and far eastern China. But there is a pathogen effecting whole stands of this tree in its native range.

The main horticultural interest for this tree for visual aspect is the Spring bloom. In May, the flowers emerge they start coming out before the foliage begins to emerge. The flowers are arranged in these foot-long candles. The flowers in Spring give way to the seed pods later in the growing season. This is last year’s seed pod still on the tree. They’re kind of a corky, somewhat woody dehiscent capsule that carried tens of thousands of seeds in each one. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, during the China trade between this country and the Far East, this was the preferred packing material in which they put the China in crates. So in many of the seaports of the United States, including San Francisco, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, they unloaded the China and threw out the seed pods, creating many groves of Paulownia tomentosa.

The wood of this tree is a very important part of Japanese culture. It’s an iconic emblem of long life and prosperity. For instance, they make amulets for newborns, they make ceremonial rice bowls, they use it for coffins. The pathogen that is affecting this species in its native range has made it almost extinct, has made the groves in the United States very, very important for trade. Saw logs go for many tens of thousands of dollars of the right size. The fact that this tree is threatened and almost extinct in its home range opens up valuable opportunities for trade between our country and Japan.

This species is very fast growing. It likes full sun to partial shade. It grows in any type of garden soil, average to heavy. Sandy is okay, as well. I planted this tree four years ago as a five foot sapling and you can see what it’s done- very fast growing. I have to also say that it’s on the Connecticut list of invasive species, so you want to be careful planting this plant — not recommended for the home garden. It has lots of seedlings that sprout. It is also a very coarse looking plant for most of the year. It is a wonderful tree as a cultural bridge between Japan and America. Paulownia tomentosa, or the empress tree — a native of Japan and the Far Eastern part of China. -Eric Larson (transcribed from video)