The Empress Tree (Royal Paulownia)...Should I?

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Whenever I do a lot of research on something I figure I might as well share it and save somebody else the trouble.  That's the case with the "Empress Tree."  Not only do I get emails about this all the time, but I also see the pictures in the Sunday paper's inserts.  Both make the tree sound pretty attractive...just look at the benefits:

* Growth rate of up to 10 feet a year, for a huge tree,
* Provides a fast canopy of shade,
* Provides a source of valuable wood, "worth 4 to 5 times the price of pine"
* Has beautiful flowers,
* Has large, tropical foliage,
* Grows in most kinds of conditions,
* Healthy,
* Prolific,
* Easy to grow.

Plus, just look at the thing!  It is a gorgeous looking tree!  Straight, tropical, flowering...what's not to love?

I wanted one, but I am also anal, and I decided to do some research to make sure it wasn't "too good to be true."  The answer I came up with?  Maybe.

Now I don't own one of these trees, but I have carefully culled the opinions of lots of people who do own them.  Using this information, you can better decide if you think the tree is a good fit for you or not.  It may be a GREAT tree for you or it may be a DUD.  What I wanted to do is put together the information you can use to make your own decision.


1. Growth rate of up to 10 feet a year...this can be true.  This tree is among the fastest growing in the world.  People who plant it are amazed by how quickly it grows.  From what I have read, new trees don't do a whole lot until they hit "year one."  People then tend to cut the tree down to the ground the next spring and that is where it takes off.  People also report that the growth of the tree is amazing while it is young, but that it slows down a bit as it matures.

What you don't hear so much about is its "beanpole" quality.  Apparently, while young, it grows "up and up" and not so much "out and out."  That gives it a slightly awkward look while it is young, but a look that "fills out" after a while.

2. Shade...the leaves are large, and once the tree is developed it probably would provide a good deal of shade cover.  When older it can have a good canopy but reports are that the canopy isn't always well balanced.  I can see it as a good shade tree, though.

3. Valuable wood...I suspect most people are using these as "yard trees" and so this doesn't matter much.  I just know I have never seen this type of wood for sale at my local Home Depot.  From reports by owners what they don't tell you is that this tree is hollow.  Not STRAW hollow, but hollow in the core.  This isn't uncommon in a fast growing tree that must be flexible.  I suppose the tree could be used for mulch and smaller things, but I suspect their claim about the value versus pine is largely based on the fact that it grows faster.

4. does make some beautiful flowers.  What I discovered, though, is that it is not always reliable.  Weather conditions make it easy to "lose" a season of flowering (especially cold snaps,) and trees planted in Northern areas don't flower as much or for as long.  Would be better in the warmer South.

5. Leaves...This tree does make large leaves (almost comically so) that give it a "tropical" feel.  The best leaves are on the new growth.  What they don't tell you is that this tree is among the last to develop leaves in the spring and the first to drop them in the fall.  Worse yet (for a Michigan boy) is that the leaves don't really change colors.  They go from green to brown to the ground.  This early leaf dropping exposes the bare branches with dried, hanging seed-pods, giving the tree a dirty look.

6. Resistant...from what I've read from owners, this is a fairly hardy tree that is resistant to pests.  The bark is coarse and easily damaged but it also repairs itself quickly in the spring, so that's okay.

7. Prolific...YES!  Well, maybe.  It depends on who you ask.  The best I can come up with is that this tree will spread quickly under the correct conditions, but perhaps not at all under the wrong conditions. Some people speculate that you would need two of the trees for pollination so if you only have one you are okay, but pollen and seeds can travel a LONG way by air and water so if there are any trees ANYWHERE in the area they will find each-other.  Other people have cut them down only to find shoots popping up from the root system around the yard.   From what I've read, in some areas they are very invasive while in others they don't seem to spread.

8. Easy to grow...Yup.  They seem to grow in some lousy soil without much complaint (which is probably why they are invasive to empty lots and roadsides.) If you are trying to grow a nice specimen you would still want to use common sense when choosing a planting site. 

So that is what I learned.  Personally, I decided it was not the right tree for me because in Michigan it doesn't seem to get the flowers and I like the fall color change.  Still, in other parts of the country it could be just what you are looking for.
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