It’s one I hadn’t seen before. It’s not a native tree, and the crown is very high so I may need to do a lot of zooming in with my camera, but it is a champion among trees, or so it says on the label kindly put there by the arboretum people…
You will see the label says it’s a Paulownia tomentosa or foxglove tree. I was intrigued by the common name but found on Wikipedia that it refers to the lovely purple blooms in spring, which are the shape of foxglove flowers. They come out before the leaves. That’s something to look forward to.
The tree comes from China and is sometimes called the empress tree, princess tree or blue dragon tree. I think I am going to call it the empress tree for now, as this example is pretty grand.
The first of these trees was brought to Europe in the 1830s by the Dutch East India Company and named Paulownia in honour of the Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna of Russia (1795-1865), who was a grand-daughter of Catherine the Great and married William II of the Netherlands. The spelling of “Pavlovna” in Dutch is “Paulowna”, hence the unusual Latin name of the tree.
Anna seems to have been a bit haughty and believed she had married below her station in life, continuing to act like a Grand Duchess of Russia rather than a Queen of the Netherlands. She preferred to keep her distance from the public but did learn the language and do some good works. She founded a school where poor women and girls could learn sewing and after the Belgian revolution, when that part of the Netherlands broke away to become a separate country, she opened a hospital for injured soldiers. She also founded 50 orphanages.
The plant was named by botanist Philipp Franz von Siebold, a German doctor and botanist who spent a lot of time in Japan and whose daughter Kusumoto Ine, born in 1827, was the first female doctor of western medicine in Japan. There must be a book and a movie in that story! Maybe I’ve missed it.
The other half of the binomial name, tomentosa, means “hairy”, as the big oval or heart-shaped leaves I can expect to see emerging after the flowers are hairy on both sides. Another thing I can look forward to!
This particular empress tree was planted around 1950, making it about 65 years old. So not that huge, considering it is said by some to be the “fastest growing tree in the world”. The species doesn’t like being overshadowed, but that shouldn’t be a problem here.
You can tell it is quite old by the lovely moss and lichen on the trunk…
There are a couple of aspects to the tree’s rapid growth. One is that in some countries, such as Japan and the eastern United States, it is considered to be an invasive species. In the 19th century the soft, light seeds were often used as packaging material around porcelain exported from China. The seeds sometimes leaked out or the packing cases burst and many seeds were scattered on railway lines to proliferate and become a pest.
A more positive aspect of the tree’s quick growth is to be found in its native China. Traditionally an empress tree was planted when a baby girl was born. By the time she was old enough to marry the tree would be big enough to cut down and carve into items for her dowry. The wood is also made into stringed instruments such as the Japanese koto and Korean gayageum zithers.
According to Chinese legends, the empress tree is the only one on which a phoenix will land, and only if a good ruler is in power.
Follow many more trees with Loose and Leafy here.