The Empress tree or Paulownia (Paulownia tomentosa), also called the Princess tree, is a deciduous tall tree, native to central and western China. It is a fast growing tree that typically becomes up to 40’ tall with a rounded crown. It is noted for its large fragrant, tubular, funnel-shaped, lavender flowers. Its Catalpa-like leaves are broader and larger than those of the Catalpa. In 1784, the Swedish biologist Carl Peter Thunberg named the plant Bignonia tomentosa. Then, the Dutch botanist Philipp Franz von Siebald renamed the tree after princess Anna Paulowna, queen consort of William II of the Netherlands and daughter of Tsar Paul I of Russia. The tree was introduced into to United States in the early 1840’s, became an important street tree, but is now an invasive in some parts of the United states. In Japan, the P. tomentosa is planted at the birth of a girl. By the time she is eligible for marriage, this fast-growing tree is cut down and her dowry furniture is made of it. In the 19th century the soft P. tomentosa capsules and seeds were used for packaging which resulted in seeds escaping during transportation and germinating along railroad tracks.
Link to the history of Paulownia tree
Common name: Empress Tree, Princess Tree, Foxglove Tree
Scientific Name (family and order): Paulownia tomentosa, (Thunberg) Steudel (Paulowniaceae, Lamiales)
Species Origin: Central and East China
New Jersey Status: USDA Introduced
Habit: Rounded to broadly columnar with stout shoots that are hairy when young. The tree is tall, 32’ to 82’ high; 40’ wide.
Habitat: Zones 6 – 9.
Trunk/Stem: Bark gray-brown with smooth narrow furrows. Our specimen is old and has promiment burls on the lower trunk and base. We have to regularly remove suckers from the base. Leaves growing from the suckers (or after coppicing) may be much much larger than those higher in the tree.
Leaves: Deciduous, Simple, Opposite; The leaf is broadly ovate in shape; up to 18 inches long (even larger on coppice growth). Blade soft, flaccid; the leaf blade top is dark green; blade undersurface is lighter green with fine, sticky hairs. The blade has 5 pinnately arranged veins on both sides. The blade margins are smooth (entire). The overall heart-shaped leaves are reminiscent of Catalpa bignonioides (Bignoniaceae, Lamiales).
Flowers: Perfect. Fragrant, tubular flowers born in upright panicles, up to 12 inches tall with purple trumpet-shaped corolla; brown-felted (tomentose) bracts enclose the flower bud. The flower is similar to a Foxglove flower (Digitalis purpurea, Plantaginaceae, Lamiales). The flowers are bilaterally symmetric (zygomorphic).
Fruits and seeds: Fruit green, pointed egg-shaped capsule ripening to woody brown; seeds winged borne in green fruit and dispersed by wind. The fruit is 3 – 4 cm long and the seeds are winged but tiny.