These lovely, fragrant flowers are from Princess Tree, Paulownia tomentosa, a native of China that is blooming now. While it is characterized as an invasive exotic by the Tennessee Exotic Pest Plant Council – right up there with kudzu, multiflora rose and mimosa — the University of Tennessee extension service advocates planting it as a cash crop. Most of the trees grown in the United States are shipped to Japan where the wood is used for making furniture and carved items, and in construction.
Paulownia was introduced in the United States 150 years ago and has since naturalized in at least 33 states. For an invasive exotic, the plant has some picky requirements. The seeds cannot germinate on fertile soil, and seedlings are subject to a damping-off disease that kills many of them. The plant does well in full sunlight, and under the right conditions it can grow 15 feet in one season. I personally rarely see it in the forest interior; rather it is usually found on the forest edge, along roadsides, and on rock outcrops.
If you are sensitive to the problems to our ecosystems that are caused by invasive exotics you won’t plant this tree. But if you appreciate beautiful sweet-smelling blossoms, you may enjoy this non-native plant for a couple of weeks each spring.