We often get questions about a tree called the “Purple Empress” (Paulownia tomentosa) from people who have seen the tree in bloom or in mail order ads. For years, readers of The Farmers Almanac saw a full-page ad offering seedlings of this mail-order favorite. The advertiser claimed it “Zoooooms 12 feet in a single year,” and is “loaded with fragrant purple blooms”.
Similar to the Catalpa, but less common in southern Ohio, the Empress tree is a fast-growing softwood tree that thrives south of the Mason-Dixon line, where it is considered invasive. Paulownias in Ohio tend to die back in hard winters, so large examples are harder to find. Considered a weed by nursery professionals, Paulownia is rarely offered in garden centers.
The famous Longwood gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania features a “Paulownia Walk” lined with Empress trees, which fascinated Longwood creator Pierre S. DuPont. He dreamed of a tree-lined promenade between the main entrance and the huge conservatory, shaded by mature Paulownias. A hundred-year effort by some of the world’s best arborists has failed to realize his dream, since Paulownias do not have the traits that make attractive, matching street trees and prefer to “sucker” in an unruly fashion.
In China, an old custom is to plant an Empress Tree when a baby girl is born. The fast-growing tree matures when she does. When she is eligible for marriage the tree is cut down and carved into wooden articles for her dowry. Carving the wood of Paulownia is an art form in Japan and China. The soft, lightweight seeds were commonly used as a packing material by Chinese porcelain exporters in the 19th century, and as a result seeds were scattered widely. This, together with seeds released by specimens deliberately planted for ornament, has allowed the species to become an invasive weed tree in some areas of the U.S.
Like most fast-growing trees, Paulownias can provide quick results but have some real disadvantages in landscapes. They have huge, sloppy, sticky leaves and equally messy bloom heads, a real nuisance in paved areas and lawns. Like Catalpas, they are best enjoyed from a distance.
Professional nurserymen don’t grow Paulownias commercially. Fast-growing softwood trees like Catalpa, Mimosa, and Paulownia aren’t really taken seriously among landscape designers because they have so many drawbacks, however they have their fans and continue to be planted in gardens. Many examples are “volunteers”; trees that pop up after seed is spread by birds.
There’s no doubt that Paulownia trees are pretty when they are in bloom, as are Catalpa and Mimosa. If you have a spot where the mess they make isn’t a problem, you can find seedlings easily under mature examples, or look for saplings online. They aren’t hard to grow.
Steve Boehme is a southwest Ohio landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape makeovers. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are online at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.