Paulownia tomentosa - Empress Tree

Origin and Distribution

Paulownia, also known as empress tree, is native to Central and West China, but has been cultivated as an ornamental tree far beyond its original homeland. Paulownia even appears as an invasive species especially in warmer regions.


Paulownia is a deciduous tree. It can grow up to 12-15 meters high. Particularly in its youth Paulownia is a rapid-growing tree. Due to its eye-catching growth structure, which is embossed by a short and upright trunk, thick branches and a broad crown, Paulownia can be recognized from miles away. Paulownia’s bark is gray and even. The tree does not have high demands to the soil, though it prefers a nutrient-rich and moderately dry soil to grow in. Paulownia likes warm, sunny and wind protected areas. It cannot handle shadow. In its youth the tree is a bit sensitive to frost and may need some protection in winter times. However, after cutting back frozen branches, new sprouts will start growing strongly.

The leaves are very big and heart-shaped and are arranged alternately. They have long stems, are mat green and velvety at the undersides.

Paulownia’s buds are hairy and coloured in a brown-reddish tone. Before the leaves shoot, in April/ May, the flowers appear in upright, branched, up to 40 cm high, grape-shaped inflorescences. The blossoms are bell-shaped, coloured in a nice blue-violet shade and are approximately 6 cm long; every single flower is foxglove-like and has a yellow striped gorge.

Damaged flowers from late frost are possible, depending on the local climate.

Paulownia’s capsule fruits are the size of a walnut, they are tapered and green at first, later they get brown and woody. They stick on the tree until spring and become a nice and clacking decoration. The capsule fruits are parted into two compartments containing hundreds of tiny, winged seeds.

Its distinctive habitus, paired with the violet flowers, the big leaves and the tapered capsule fruits make the empress tree unique. Only the Indian-bean-tree (Catalpa bignonioides) resembles the Paulownia with a comparable leaf and flower decoration.

Interesting Facts

German naturalist, doctor and japanologist Philipp Franz von Siebold was the first to bring the empress tree to Europe. He named the tree in homage to crown princess and later queen Anna (Pawlowna) of the Netherlands, who was a daughter of Russian tsar Paul I.

Paulownia used to be the favourite tree of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I. That’s why there are many empress trees planted in the cities of the former Austrian empire.

Because of its high occurrence and its acoustic features, the Chinese used the wood of the tree to produce musical instruments. The bodies of many electric guitars are made of Paulownia wood. Moreover, the wood is used to produce components of table tennis equipment. Scientists are trying to figure out its usage for agriculture because of its extremely rapid growth. The Paulownia tree is very popular in Japan and is part in many emblems and coat of arms. Such as the coat of arms of the Japanese Prime Minister.

Garden Design

Paulownia is a very nice specimen tree for bigger gardens or parkways. It offers a feast for the eyes especially during flowering time with its unusual blue-violet colour. Its big and almost tropical leaves and its distinctive habitus make the tree very unique.