Paulownia tomentosa, common names princess tree, empress tree, or foxglove-tree, is a deciduous hardwood tree in the family Paulowniaceae, native to central and western China. It is an extremely fast-growing tree with seeds that disperse readily, and is a persistent exotic invasive species in North America, where it has undergone naturalisation in large areas of the Eastern US. P. tomentosa has also been introduced to Western and Central Europe, and is establishing itself as a naturalised species there as well.
This tree grows 10–25 m (33–82 ft) tall, with large heart-shaped to five-lobed leaves 15–40 cm (6–16 in) across, arranged in opposite pairs on the stem. On young growth, the leaves may be in whorls of three and be much bigger than the leaves on more mature growth. The leaves can be mistaken for those of the catalpa.
The very fragrant flowers, large and violet-blue in colour are produced before the leaves in early spring, on panicles 10–30 centimetres (4–12 in) long, with a tubular purple corolla 4–6 centimetres (1+1⁄2–2+1⁄4 in) long resembling a foxglove flower. The fruit is a dry egg-shaped capsule 3–4 centimetres (1+1⁄8–1+5⁄8 in) long, containing numerous tiny seeds. The seeds are winged and disperse by wind and water. Pollarded trees do not produce flowers, as these form only on mature wood.
Paulownia tomentosa requires full sun for proper growth. It is tolerant of pollution and can tolerate many soil types. It can also grow from small cracks in pavements and walls. Paulownia can survive wildfires because the roots can regenerate new, very fast-growing stems.
In August 2021 the EPPO added P. tomentosa to its Alert List, not due to any particular known problem within Europe, but as a step to begin assessing whether it should be regarded as a problematic invader.
- Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France (including Corsica), Germany, Hungary, Italy (including Sardinia and Sicily), Slovenia, Switzerland, United Kingdom
- Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia
Asian introduced range
Because of its tolerance and flexibility, Paulownia functions ecologically as a pioneer plant. Its nitrogen-rich leaves provide good fodder and its roots prevent soil erosion. Eventually, Paulownia is succeeded by taller trees that shade it and in whose shade it cannot thrive.
The characteristic large size of the young growth is exploited by gardeners: by pollarding the tree and ensuring there is vigorous new growth every year, massive leaves are produced (up to 60 centimetres (24 in) across). These are popular in the modern style of gardening which uses large-foliaged and "architectural" plants.
The soft, lightweight seeds were commonly used as a packing material by Chinese porcelain exporters in the 19th century, before the development of polystyrene packaging. Packing cases would often leak or burst open in transit and scatter the seeds along rail tracks. The magnitude of the numbers of seeds used for packaging, together with seeds deliberately planted for ornament, has allowed the species to be viewed as an invasive species in areas where the climate is suitable for its growth, notably Japan and the eastern United States.
In Japan, where the tree's name of Princess Tree originates, its name stems from the practice of planting seeds of the tree when a couple has a daughter; it is said that by the time the daughter is in her older teens or at the peak of adulthood when she is ready to marry, the tree by this time has also grown to maturity, which is then felled and made into a tansu dresser as a wedding gift.
P. tomentosa has been suggested as a plant to use in carbon capture projects, as it is capable of C4 carbon fixation. P. tomentosa displays markedly efficient photosynthesis, has large leaves that readily absorb pollutants, and also has value in timber and aesthetics, adding to interest surrounding its use in carbon capture.
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- Species Profile - Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa), National Invasive Species Information Center, United States National Agricultural Library. Lists general information and resources for Princess Tree.