Tall Purple Flowering Tree with Seed Pod Clusters

The opened fruit of Paulownia tomentosa.
The opened fruit of Paulownia tomentosa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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).

Français : paulownia tomenteux encore appelé p...

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.


9 thoughts on “Tall Purple Flowering Tree with Seed Pod Clusters”

  1. As an aside, an interesting story about how this tree came to the United States is that the seed pods were used as early “packing popcorn” to protect china that was being shipped to the Untied States. The railroads transported the cargo, once inland, and the seeds were disbursed along the railroad tracks from broken crates.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this tree. I work for a landscaper and we have these on our property in the woods but he had no clue what they were. Without your site I would have never figured it out.

  3. Regarding Empress Tree. We stopped to take a look at this strange tree in southeastern Massachusetts. In late May a very small section had flowers. It was covered in the seed pods which I assume we’re from last year (?). Leaves were beginning to appear…. Reminded me of a hydrangea. It seems late for this tree to just be getting its leaves…. And flowers before leaves? Is this tree sick?

  4. I wish I could help you but I am not a tree expert. My blog, where you found the information about the Empress Tree, documents my research on new plants / animals / activities in my new home of Sharps Chapel, TN, as I discover them and want to learn more. I do know that the Empress Tree is a trash tree and really does not have a very nice shape as it matures, so it would be a good thing if it was “biting the dust”. It is non-native to the US. Thanks for reading.

  5. I have one growing in Hamilton, Ontario, Can. 4 years old, flowered for 1st time. Buds appeared in fall, made it thru mild winter, flowers openned maybe May, leaves appeared in June, now July, we have leaves with seed pods about 1 inch in size. Rainy summer, Paulownia is not liking it, growth has slowed, leaves are smaller with yellowing. Trunk is 8 inch diameter. Flower before leaves is normal.

  6. Admiring the time and effort you put into your website and in depth information you present.

    It’s good to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same unwanted
    rehashed information. Excellent read! I’ve bookmarked your
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  7. Thanks to the info on here I can finally research this tree so I can get one planted in my yard!!! They are so beautiful!!!!

  8. I always wanted a yard full of beautiful big leaf trees ,one day this one grew all by itself and I have loved it every year for its differences in the way of it changes.
    I have no idea where he came from no one in my neighborhood even has a tree like this. I live on Staten Island New York.

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