Paulownia is a royal pain!

The New Year is upon us and I can’t think of a better way to fulfill your resolution to lose weight than a walk through the woods.  While walking through the woods you might notice many plants that you don’t remember seeing during your early woodland adventures as a child.  One plant you may be seeing more of is Paulownia, or royal princess tree.

5273051Native to western China, paulownia or empress tree (Paulownia tomentosa) was first introduced to the US in the early 1800’s as an ornamental for its showy sprigs of 1.5 to 2 inch tubular, pale violet flowers, which are present from April to May. Paulownia is also grown in large plantations in the South for speculative wood exports to Japan.

Growth of paulownia is rapid, reaching up to 15 feet in a single year.  A single tree can produce approximately 21 million light, papery, wind-dispersed seeds.  These seeds will germinate almost anywhere they contact trace amounts of soil, including cracks on steep cliffs and spaces between pavement. Rapid growth and high seed production allow paulownia to easily crowd out native plant species and disrupt desirable forest regeneration after timber harvest or other disturbances.  Displacement of native plants destroys habitat for wildlife and can diminish opportunities for 5022021outdoor recreational activities such as hunting, hiking, and bird watching. If paulownia continues to proliferate through landscape planting and escape into natural areas, there will be significant economic impacts to the timber industry, agricultural production, and recreation. 

In southern Ohio, paulownia commonly invades roadsides, riparian areas, forest edges, pasture, and disturbed forests. Continued planting of the tree as an ornamental has greatly expanded the area it is invading.  This spread is amplified by long range dispersal of seeds which can travel up to two miles in the wind.

Paulownia seed pods

Paulownia seed pods

Winter is a great time to identify population of paulownia because the 1 to 2 inch green seed capsules that formed during summer have turned brown and split open during last fall.  These opened capsules will remain on the tree throughout the winter. During the spring paulownia is also easily identified because of its showy display of flowers.  Leaves are heart shaped and velvety on both sides; attached opposite of each other along the stems; and can be up to 12 inches long and 9 inches wide, easily one of the bigger leaves found in the area.  Leaves look similar to those of catalpa trees, but catalpa leaves are only sparsely hairy on the upper leaf surface and are arranged in a whorl with three attached at the same position on the stem. If the look of paulownia is what you desire in your landscaping and gardening, consider using these better alternatives: Northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa), cucumbertree (Magnolia acuminate), or yellowwood (Cladrastis lutea).

Addtional information for the identification and control of paulownia can be found at at this link, additional questions can answered by contacting Eric Boyda at or 740-534-6578.

About appalachianohioweeds

My name is Eric Boyda and I am the current coordinator of the Appalachian Ohio Weed Control Partnership. My interests include increasing the awareness of invasive plants and helping individuals or groups plan control strategies.

Posted on January 7, 2013, in Species profiles. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Max Greenbaum

    good information, I have always liked the catalpa which I believe is a little bit invasive as an import from the south in our area of south western Indiana but not really a bad pest,I encountered the Paulownia which appears to be a prettier version, in Madison Indiana on the Ohio river and considered bringing a start back, but then I noticed that it is growing every where in Kentucky.I even saw it sprouting out of a brick wall of an old building,so I checked it when I got home, bad news, invasive. By the way, why are idiots still selling purple winter creeper- this is a horrible pest- it is destroying woodlands in my area. nursery people need to warn customers about the unethical people spreading such trash.

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