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What is Paulownia?

Debra Durkee
Debra Durkee

The paulownia is a genus of tree native to Asia. Depending on the taxonomy used, there are between six and 19 species that belong to the group. Many of these trees are tropical or subtropical, and there are only a handful that can be found in the more temperate areas of the world. The most popular member of the paulownia is the P. tomentosa, also known as the princess tree, kiri tree, royal paulownia, or Chinese empress tree.

The hardiest member of the genus is also the princess tree, resulting in its popularity. While most members of the Paulownia genus are tropical, the princess tree can winter temperatures to 0°F (about -17°C). Only a few others, the P. fortunei and P. elongata, can handle cool winter temperatures where they must winter through months of conditions to 20°F (about -6°C). An import to areas like the United States and Europe, the paulownia was only brought to the West in the early 1800s. Originally spread by the Dutch East India Company, the hardier versions of the paulownia have since been naturalized throughout Europe and North America.

Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

The desirability of the princess tree varies based on location. In its native China and Japan, it is prized for its large, ornamental leaves, purple flowers, and delicate wood. A massive cash crop, the trees are raised for their wood, which is in turn used in a number of decorative processes including the making of furniture, instruments, bowls, and boxes. Because of its strength, it is also used in lumber and construction.

In the United States, the tree has been named an invasive species when found in the wild. The princess tree is extremely fast-growing, and is able to tolerate a variety of different soil conditions. Able to grow in infertile, rocky soils, and environments destroyed by fire, the princess tree can reproduce quickly, take over a disturbed area, and colonize it or push native species out. These qualities, the same that make it such a valued cash crop in one part of the world, makes it a nuisance in others.

The tree has become a forestry crop in other parts of the world because Japanese demand for its wood is so high. Japan imports harvested paulownia from countries like China, Thailand, and Taiwan, and as far away as Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. Paulownia trees are raised on plantations around the world, and harvested for their wood.

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