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Last month, in a fit on excessive spring exuberance, I blogged about the redbud tree, one of the first trees to blossom as the weather warms. Spring has been a bit delayed here and tree enthusiasts have yet to spy the redbud’s lovely reddish-pink blooms. Nevertheless, I am going to continue the theme by writing about another tree which stands out on account of its beautiful pastel flowers–the empress tree (Paulownia tomentosa), a deciduous tree from western and central China. Also called the foxglove tree and the princess tree, the empress tree is covered with huge pale purple fountain-shaped blossoms in early spring. Growing faster than virtually any other deciduous tree, the paulownia readily proliferates throughout temperate climates. Its wood is easy to tool and carve while also durable and pretty.
In Chinese culture, paulownia wood was used for all sorts of ornamental cabinetry and carving. Most traditional Chinese musical instruments were (and still are) made of paulownia wood. A custom in China was to plant a paulownia tree upon the birth of a female child. When she reached adulthood, the tree would be felled in order to fashion a trousseau for her marriage. On a darker note, the wood is one of the preferred materials for Chinese coffins.
Because of its prettiness, quick growth, and usefulness, the tree was planted throughout East Asia and it quickly spread to temperate forests of Korea and Japan (where the official symbol of the Japanese prime minister is a paulownia flower). The seed pods of the tree are abundant, soft, and durable. This made them the perfect “packing peanut” of the 18th and 19th century when Chinese porcelain was being exported around the world. International trade disseminated paulownia seeds across Europe and the United States and they remain common near railroad lines. Because it is so hardy and quick growing, the empress tree is a formidable (albeit charismatic) invasive plant from coast to coast in the United States. Looking through the internet I have found many websites on how to deal with invasive paulownias…as well as many websites selling the trees for landscaping and sound barriers! Thanks to this latter use, paulownias are also common near major interstate highways.
Fortunately, European and American woodworkers are coming to appreciate the toughness and ease of tooling which made the lumber popular throughout Asia: empress tree wood is now frequently made into surfboards, skis, and electric guitars. The tree’s popularity as lumber and as a swift-growing reforestation tree is causing its numbers to swell, despite the best efforts of anti-invader purists.
It should be increasingly obvious that the empress tree is one of the winners of the Holocene world. It is a formidable and successful organism with many competitive advantages. Even without human interference, it would probably be spreading. However, like the pig or the rose, is appealing to humankind on many levels and we have carried it all over the place. I love pork and suede and roses. I also like the purple cascade of paulonia blossoms in April and May and the dulcet tones of the guzhen. I hope you do to, because the empress tree is here to stay….