I’d been seeing these tall trees with abundant seed pod clusters in the woods here in Sharps Chapel in Eastern TN and along the side of the road but it wasn’t until they started blooming pretty purple clusters of flowers in April that look like foxgloves that I was able to identify them.
What Is It?
Paulownia tomentosa (also known as the Empress Tree, Princess Tree or Foxglove Tree).
Here is a close-up image of the flower. It grows to 32–82 feet tall, with large heart-shaped to five-lobed leaves 6-12 inches across, arranged in opposite pairs on the stem. On young growth, the leaves may be in whorls of three and be much bigger than the leaves on more mature growth. The leaves can be mistaken for those of the catalpa.
What’s interesting to me is that they have huge leaves when they are younger trees (see how huge), but when they actually start to flower, the leaves get smaller. This solves another mystery. I’d seen some young trees with extremely large leaves (1 to 1.5 feet wide) in some recovering areas of our woods where there had been select cutting and now I think that these were young Paulownia trees. I considered this young tree a trash tree because it grew so fast and I was afraid it would shade out the seedlings of more desirable trees. Tit for tat, it does not grow well in the shade of other trees and will die.
Visit this Vanderbilt University site for some great photos showing distinctive characteristics of the Paulownia.