Horticulture Highlight: Empress Tree

June 4, 2021

…And because the breath of flowers is far sweeter

in the air (where it comes and goes like the

warbling of music) than in the hand, therefore

nothing is more fit for that delight than to

know what be the flowers and plants that do

best perfume the air.

            Francis Bacon

Springtime’s woody floral perfumes have thus far included winter hazel, Oregon grape, magnolia, fothergilla, cherry, crabapple, lilac and wisteria among others. Yet to sweetly scent our air will be fringe tree, yellow wood, linden, Virginia sweetspire, butterfly bush as well as much later the franklin tree.

A lesser known arborescent fragrance of late May–early June is the Empress Tree, Paulownia tomentosa. Its flowers occur just before the emerging leaves. At 30-50-feet in height you should check the ground to take a closer look and whiff of these flowers. Pale-lilac in color, each 2-inch-long flower is tubular-shaped flaring out with a ruffled outer edge. Within their throats are yellow stripes and dark spots. On the tree’s canopy the flowers are clustered in an ornamental panicle. Their fragrance reminds one of vanilla, others have suggested honey or apricots.

The gift of perfume to a flower is a special grace like genius or like beauty,

and never becomes common or cheap.

-John Burroughs

Paulownia Plant Flowers

When fertilized the flowers produce a 1-2-inch, dry, woody capsule containing multitudinous tiny winged seeds. The capsules split open at a mid-point but persist as a distinct identifying characteristic. The 5-12-inch-long, opposite, simple, heart-shaped leaves lend a tropical feel to the whole tree. 

In addition to enjoying these fragrant flowers, as with the Jeffrey pine, Siebold hemlock, Engelman spruce, sequoia, rudbeckia, parrotia, magnolia, Franklin tree, forsythia and hosta we may revisit our plant pass-time of “who grows in your garden?” Paulownia was named after Anna Pavlovna (1795-1865), daughter of Czar Paul I (1754-1801), of Russia, and granddaughter of Catherine the Great (1729-1796).

Paulownia Plant

The small Paulownia genus is native to southeast Asia, introduced by seed to France in 1834, later to the United States. Peter Valder in his The Garden Plants of China states, “…been cultivated in China for more than 3000 years, both for their useful wood and their handsome flowers.” Additionally, “…the bark, wood, leaves, flowers and fruits are all employed for various medicinal purposes…”.

On a future visit to Mount Auburn, look for our Empress Tree, Paulownia tomentosa,off Story Road near the Coolidge Avenue southern perimeter.

About the Author: Jim Gorman

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