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Haverford College
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Arboretum: Paulownia tomentosa, Empress or Princess tree

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September 2013

Most people either love or hate this tree. In Asia, the Paulownia is grown for its clusters of lavender flowers and its beautiful timber which is used for fine furniture. In this country, the tree seeds in prolifically and drops dried seed capsules, twigs and crunchy brown leaves in the fall, making it a mess in the home landscape.

It shares the same family (Bignoniaceae) as the catalpa tree, and has a similar coarse and craggy habit with a broad and rounded silhouette. The tree is extremely fast-growing and reaches 30 to 40 feet high. At Haverford College, two mature specimens are growing between Lloyd and the North Dorms. Paulownia prefers full sun, but it’s a tough plant and tolerates poor soils and air pollution. Fat flower buds form in the summer, making it an easy tree to identify. They open into clusters of trumpet-shaped lavender flowers in spring before the large heart-shaped leaves. The resulting capsules (each containing up to 2000 seeds) hang on for months.

The tree was introduced to Europe and this country in the 19th century and named for Anna Pavlovna, daughter of Czar Paul I of Russia. The species name tomentosa refers to the tomentose underside of the leaves created by soft fuzzy white hairs. Paulownia tomentosa has now naturalized from southern New York to Georgia where its lavender flower clusters can be spotted at the edge of woods.

We recently added another species to the Haverford collection which is growing by leaps and bounds outside the lower locker room entrance of the Gardner Athletic Center. The similar-looking Paulownia kawakamii, or sapphire dragon tree, is on the critically endangered list in its native Taiwan, Japan and eastern China.


Martha Van Artsdalen