Princess Tree — a Conundrum!

PaulowniaThese 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.




  1. Todd Crabtree

    I have seen a few large individuals of this species on the trail to Walls of Jericho. A friend of mine saw one of those trees and carved a ring around the bark in an attempt to girdle it. I think that just made it angry. In the last few years since the girdling attempt took place the tree has continued to grow larger.
    It has big, beautiful, fragrant flowers that make it a seductive plant. Don’t fall into that trap. Limestone quarries are one of its favorite hideouts and the gravel from those quarries carries the seed to new locations. That isn’t a typical dispersal method for seeds but it is a very effective one. Spotted knapweed has adopted the same strategy.

  2. Martha

    I first saw these in bloom in the formal allee at Longwood Gardens definitely living up to their name, Princess Tree. They were magical , just dripping with blooms from old gnarled branches. The trees were huge. That was some time in the 1980’s, the next time I saw some of the trees in bloom was last spring when I was visiting Sewanee and I noticed them growing along the interstate mostly growing in gullies or ravines. Most were much smaller than the Longwood specimens. I live in central Oklahoma and I’m sure they won’t grow here, so there is no temptation to plant one! I imagine it probably grows in far eastern and south eastern Oklahoma where the climate is more tree friendly.

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