The Paulownia (Paulownia tomentosa), also called the Empress or Princess tree, is a deciduous fast-growing tree that typically becomes up to 40’ tall. With age, its trunk often grows irregular and sometimes becomes hollow inside. The tree has large heart-shaped leaves and is noted for its fragrant, tubular, funnel-shaped, lavender flowers. The Paulownia is native to China and was cultivated in Japan and Korea before being exported to Europe and elsewhere in the nineteenth century. In America, the Paulownia quickly became a popular garden and street tree and its rise to fame has a rich and well documented history.
In The Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Affairs of 1846, Andrew Downing, the father of American landscaped gardening, introduced the Paulownia as a new ornamental tree to his readership. It was an expanded article, now with illustrations, of a description of the tree published two year earlier in his second edition of A treatise on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, adapted to North America. Also in 1846, a popular monthly nursery magazine The Cultivator advertised the sale of 500 Paulownia trees, 6 to 15 feet high at $1,00 apiece suggesting the tree had already been cultivated in America for several years and was in high demand.
Downing got much of his knowledge about the Paulownia from the German physician Franz von Siebold who included a detailed description of the tree in his Flora Japonica, a popular 19th century reference book on exotic plants published in 1835. Von Siebold, at the request of the Dutch East Indian Company, had traveled extensively in Asia, gathered information about local plants, and must have directly observed the Paulownia while staying in Japan. He named the tree after Anna Pavlovna, queen consort of William II of The Netherlands and daughter of Tsaar Paul I of Russia, and dedicated the Flora Japonica to the princess as well.
For the illustrations of the Paulownia, Andrew Downing specifically mentioned von Siebold’s as his source. However, Downing’s illustration of a branch with flowers and seeds differs slightly from von Siebold’s version and seems to have been copied from illustrations in contemporary French botanical magazines and published in reverse. The picture of the tree seems too generic for a direct provenance.
Von Siebold was not the first to provide the West with an illustration of the Paulownia. That distinction was given to Englebert Kaempfer, who traveled to Japan for the Dutch East Indian Company about a century earlier and carefully illustrated the leaf, flower, and fruit of the Paulownia in his Amoenitatum Exoticum of 1712. Kaempfer also is famous for bringing the first seeds of the Ginkgo tree back to Europe and reportedly planting these in the Hortus Botanicus in Utrecht.
Planting Paulownia seeds in Europe is not documented until 1834 or 1836 when M. Neumann, a horticulturist at Les Jardin des Plantes in Paris received seeds from the Count of Cussy. During his travels to England the count had acquired several small porcelain vases that contained Paulownia seeds from a member of the British East Indian Company called Kiernon (probably Kiernan). Because the British East Indian Company primary traded with India and China, the seeds probably originated from China, and not Japan. Some seeds successfully germinated, and the young plants were cared for in a greenhouse in the Jardin des Plants. After three years, noticing that the plants were not thriving, Neumann moved them outside where they started to do much better, and eight years after the seed was planted the Paulownia finally bloomed for the first time.
As mentioned before, the Paulownia is a fast-growing tree and propagation turned out to be easy. Cuttings of young shoots according to Neumann were planted in a shady place under glass and readily struck root. Also pieces of the root of the Paulownia were placed under an inch and a half of soil in a hot house and generated new plants in about two weeks. And of course, the parent tree in the Jardin des Plants by 1842 was producing seeds in large quantities as well.
Not all Paulownia trees cultivated in Europe in the 1840ties were descendants of the Jardin des Plantes’ seeds. In 1841, Carl Ludwig Blume, a colleague of Franz von Siebold kept Paulownia plants originating from Japan alive on ships destined for Europe. After arrival, these plants were then cultivated and propagated in botanical gardens in the Netherlands and elsewhere. Others must have imported plants and seeds as well. By 1844, three different variants of the Paulownia originating both from China and Japan were described, all probably contributing to the rapid spread and increasing popularity of the tree.
Downing did not included the Paulownia in his 1841 edition of A treatise on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, adapted to North America but then added a description of the tree to his 1844 edition suggesting increased interest in the tree as well as the availability of Paulownia plants in America. This seems also supported by Downing reporting in 1846 that descendants of the Jardin des Plantes’ Paulownia were first offered for sale in Europe in 1843 and that as far as he knew no Paulownia plant had flowered yet in America, but he expected some would probably do so in the next year (1847).
It is tempting to speculate that the Paulownia tree next to the parking lot in Marquand Park is a direct descendant of the Jardin des Plantes tree or one of the other early imports into Europe. In the decade of 1840-1850, Richard Field was actively expanding his collection of trees, showed great interest in the cultivation of new and exotic plants, was familiar with the writings of Andrew Downing and was a contributor to his journal. Acquiring one of the early available plants would have been relatively easy for him. The Marquand Park Paulownia tree was recorded in an 1917 inventory and, therefore, must be at least 100 years old, a very respectable age for a Paulownia tree or any tree for that matter. If the tree was planted around 1845 it would now be about 180 years old and probably one of the oldest Paulownia trees on record. Given the way Paulownias propagate, the current tree more likely could be an offshoot of an earlier planted tree growing in the same location. Looking at its complicated root structure, it is easy to imagine that it harbors several generations of Paulownias.
A.J Downing, “Two New Ornamental trees” in The Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste, Vol 1: pp. 16-17, July 1846.