The latest treasure we found at JP’s Arnold Arboretum was a tree that has long been important to the Chinese and Japanese, and one that made its own packing peanuts hundreds of years before Styrofoam™.
I’m one of those tag readers and feel a cheap thrill when I discover something like the PAULOWNIA TOMENTOSA. Rationally I know that this is akin to reading a road sign, but hey I’ll take my pleasures as they come.
There are only a few of these 50-footers there. One is on the gravel path from Forest Hills Station. Another is just east of Beech Path overlooking the state labs. A few are on the hill above the lilacs. These are not important enough to be listed on the map.
That’s what first caught my eye. Then looking way up, the pale violet bell-shaped flowers were both subtle and profuse. They look like foxglove (digitalis). The leaves are worth mentioning too. They are perhaps a foot long, broad and ovate. They seem to belong on a swamp shrub instead of a sizable tree.
Once I found its copper label, I wanted to know what the deal was with those pods and why weren’t any seeds around amidst so many of them?
The Pods. The seed pods have their own tale. The tree is native to China and cultivated widely in Japan as well. We are at the North of its range and apparently the many hundreds of tiny seeds in each pod are not very efficient. They should be capable of germinating in the spring, but you don’t see babies popping up. On the other hand, the seeds like warm weather and in parts of the Southeast, this is an invasive tree. It was introduced as an ornamental and well, you know how that works.
The pods turn out to be great protective packing material. Merchants shipping valuable and fragile objects from Orient to Occident used these for centuries in their crates.
The Name. Paulownia is an honorific to someone who basically had nothing to do with the tree. When she was a duchess, the daughter of Russia’s Tsar Paul, Anna Pavlovna (1795-1865) of the Netherlands got the honor. She later became Queen of the Netherlands. In case you’ve forgotten you terms, tomentosa means furry, as in the backs of the leaves.
The Culture. It is also known as princess tree. Traditionally on the day a daughter is born, the parents plant one. It grows rapidly and matures about the time a young woman is of marrying age. Its wood is highly prized in both China and Japan for cabinetry. She receives an elaborate cabinet as part of her coming of age.
The tree is viewed as important enough that it is a feature on the seal of the Japanese prime minister.
The arboretum includes the tree in its history of how Frank N. Meyer came to bring them from China a century ago.
The flowers are abundant in late May. They are remarkable for their delicate coloring, their being out of reach, and that they tend to fall by the ones and dozens as you pass.
By the bye, despite the seeds’ seeming infertility here, propagation can be by root or greenwood cuttings. Young, unfolding leaves can also create a new Paulownia. Finally, after being harvested, the tree invariably puts up a new main trunk.
Except for the floral period, Paulownia isn’t showy. It’s trunk is pretty dull too. It’s a scholar or poet though, with a lot at work behind its quiet appearance.