Paulownia tomentosa, Common name Empress Tree
Right now this tree’s large purple panicled flowers, which look similar to foxglove flowers, are blooming and the scent is wonderful. There are several in the UWBG collection, most located at the North end of the park where the wetlands trail begins.
It is a very fast growing tree that can reach 80 ft. in height, and is prized for its large heart-shaped fuzzy leaves. The large size of young growth can be enhanced if the tree is pollarded yearly; the pruning encourages growth of leaves up to 16” across.
It is classified as an invasive plant in the Southern United States, where it sends out invasive roots and can take over the area it is planted in. The Paulownia here in the Pacific Northwest do not behave invasively, probably due to our cooler climate.
The name Paulownia is in honor of the Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna of Russia, with tomentosa being derived from the Latin meaning ‘covered in hairs’.
Paulownia is cultivated as an ornamental tree in parks and gardens. It has earned the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.
In its native 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. In legend, it is said that the phoenix will only land on the Empress Tree and only when a good ruler is in power. Several Asian string instruments are made from P. tomentosa, including the Japanese koto and Korean gayageum zithers.