Royal Empress Tree: Everything You Need to Know

Elizabeth Durham — Aug 11, 2022

Here at FastGrowingTrees.com, we’ve had a long history with the Empress–as well as a great admiration for her beauty and strength. The Paulownia tree (more commonly called Royal Empress, Kiri, Princess, or Climate) is the tree that actually started our business! Way back during the early days of our company, we only sold one kind of tree. And out of all the varieties we could choose from, we picked the Empress!

 

Fast forward to now: We have expanded quite a bit but still hold Her Majesty near and dear to our hearts. Let’s discuss why the Empress was the fast-growing tree that started it all!

Meet the Empress: An Unmatched Queen

The Empress belongs to a family of trees called Paulowniaceae. Within this family, there are different cultivars that vary by some degree but share the overall same characteristics. They all feature:

  • Rapid growth
  • Straight trunks
  • Massive heart-shaped leaves that grow up to 8 inches wide and 12 inches long (or larger!)

The tree’s flowers are lilac and resemble the bell-shaped blossoms of the foxglove (plus a sweet vanilla scent). After the tree blooms in spring, the brown seed pods take the flowers’ place. Then come autumn, these pods drop shortly before the leaves do.

 

The Paulownia tree is native to regions of Asia and has a long, culturally rich history. In Japan, it was tradition to plant a Royal Empress tree when a daughter was born. As the baby grew, so did the tree. When it came time for her to marry, the tree would be cut and the wood used for things in her new home. 

This tradition is actually where the tree got its name! When the Netherlands’ Queen Anna Pavlona was born, her father adopted the Japanese tradition and planted one in honor of her birth. And thus, “Pavlona” became “Paulownia.”

As with many trees, we’re not too sure how the Paulownia traveled across the ocean to the Americas. However, it's estimated that it has been here since the 1840s.

While it's not as common in the States, the Empress is a big player in the lumber industry because of its rapid growth, exceptional wood strength, and knot-free wood. In just 8-10 years, a stand of trees can be harvested for lumber, and then the stumps will grow new trees without replanting. Empress lumber is currently used for furniture, instruments, buildings, surfboards, and much more. Chances are you’ve used an item made from Empress wood and not even realized it!

Besides the lumber industry, the Empress tree is also a popular choice for gardens throughout Europe. The trees grow quickly, providing shade in record time–meanwhile, maples or oaks take decades to reach the same height. More and more homeowners are considering planting their own Empress for this reason. 

Notable Cultivars

As mentioned before, the Empress tree is part of a larger group known as Paulownia. Within this group, each cultivar comes with slight differences. Think of it like a family: All biological siblings will share things like hair, skin, and eye color, but there will be some characteristics that make them unique. Below are two of our favorite “siblings” in the Paulownia family tree.

Nordmax 21

The Nordmax 21 is a special cultivar known for its cold hardiness down to -18 F°. Similar to its siblings, it can reach a height of around 50 feet. This tree has a slightly wider crown or canopy at 30-40 feet, which provides more shade than the others. Its blooms will begin in April and last around six weeks, all while producing no fruit or seeds. In other words, the Nordmax 21 won’t drop seedlings that continue to spread (this is a good thing – learn why in the Misconceptions section!)

Phoenix One®

Phoenix One’s claim to fame is its heat and drought tolerance up to a growing zone 11. It features the same rapid growth, height, and durability as other Paulownias–just without the flowers. No blooms means no seeds. Therefore, the tree will not spread or create a mess in your yard. Instead, you can enjoy the much-needed shade without the cleanup. 

Why We Adore the Empress

Good for the environment

Just by planting a few of these trees, you and your family are on your way to decreasing your carbon footprint. Carbon is produced by fossil fuels like coal, cars fumes, and natural gas. Over time, these pollutants build up and mean bad news for our planet. One of the most effective ways to combat climate change is by planting some trees! 

The Empress tree absorbs four times as much carbon as other trees due to their fast growth rate. All the carbon absorbed by the Empress tree will be converted into oxygen. These trees are so well known for battling climate change that many industrial companies plant them to offset their carbon emissions.

Rapid growth rate

We’re not kidding around when we say the Empress is fast-growing (after all, just look at our name!). The tree has an incredible growth rate and is known as the fastest-growing hardwood in the world! 

To put it in perspective: If planted at the same time as an oak tree, the Empress will be around 50 feet tall, while the oak will be only 9 feet (after 10 years). 

Undeniable strength 

The Empress is an all-around strong tree. With a deep root system, it can handle harsh winds, cold and hot temperatures, and it’s lightweight and flexible. Its trunk and branches are durable, light, and strong, rightfully earning the lumber its title as the “aluminum among woods.”

If you live in a wildfire-prone area, the Empress is also a wise investment. Not only will its dense shade help slow evaporation, but this tree can also handle droughts and boasts a flashpoint of above 752 F°! 

Safe for pets

While the flowers of the empress resemble the foxglove (so much that it’s sometimes called the ‘foxglove tree’), don’t expect these blooms to have the same toxic trait. While we do not encourage you to eat any part of the Paulownia tree, any accidental consumption is not likely to poison you or your pets.

Misconceptions

As with any icon, the rumor mill surrounds this Empress. So, let's address each piece of gossip to see if it’s fact or fiction. 

Fiction: “It's invasive! Never plant this tree.”

This statement is a widespread one that misses out on some very key details. It all comes down to the cultivar of the Empress tree that you plant. Just because one in the family is considered invasive, doesn’t mean the rest are as well! 

Today we have cultivars like the Nordmax 21 and the Phoenix One that don’t produce any viable seeds. This makes the tree sterile and not invasive, despite its rapid growth. The cultivar that you want to avoid is the Paulowina tomentosa–the true invasive culprit. 

Fiction: “Once you plant it, you can never remove the tree from your yard.”

It’s no secret that the Empress is a strong and mighty tree. So, when cut down to the stump, it surprises many homeowners by growing back even stronger! What most homeowners don’t know is they are just coppicing the tree. Coppicing is where you cut a tree down to the stump and let the new shoots grow, resulting in more wood produced from one single stump. It removes the need for replanting and maximizes your lumber per square footage.

If you’re really determined to remove this tree from your yard, cut the tree back to a stump, grind the stump, and remove as many roots as you can from the area. If that doesn’t work, we strongly recommend hiring a professional to finish the job.

Fact: “It grows so fast that it must die fast too.”

There is some truth to this statement. In the botanical world, the faster the tree grows the shorter its lifespan. However, when you look at the average life of a tree you might not be that disappointed. The Royal Empress tree lives to be around 70 years old. In “tree years,” this is considered short compared to oaks and ginkgos that can easily live past 100 years. 

So, while it is a true statement, don’t be mistaken: A newly planted Empress tree isn't going to die off in your lifetime. You’ll enjoy the shade and beauty it provides for decades. 

Empress Care

Location

Be intentional when choosing where to plant your Empress before you begin digging. Look for an area that is around 13 feet from any structure or other trees. Make sure there is adequate space above and below the tree. Now is also the time to locate that septic tank–ensure you stay clear! 

While the Empress is a hardy tree and withstands harsh winds, it might need additional protection while young during the first year. For high wind areas, we recommend starting the Empress in a container and transplanting once it has grown for a year. 

Sun

Full to partial sun is a must for this tree. Make sure your location has around 6-8 hours of full sun per day. You may also want to consider any nearby plants that need full sun as the Empress will grow and eventually shade the area. 

Water

During the first few years, make sure the Empress is well watered. This means saturating the surrounding soil once or twice a week (and avoiding standing water). After your tree is established, you only need to water it during times of drought or extreme weather conditions. 

Soil

Aim for a soil texture that is on the light to medium side. If you have clay-heavy soil, which is common in the southeast U.S., make sure to mix compost into your soil to add nutrients and air spaces. 

Fertilizing

Fertilizer is optional in younger trees as they are vigorous growers without the extra nutrients. To best support established trees, feed them a balanced liquid fertilizer formula starting in the spring. Follow the specific fertilizer instructions as each formulation can differ. If you notice pale or yellowing leaves, that’s a sign that your tree needs nutrients. 

Pruning

The Empress tree is very tolerant of pruning (in some cases, too tolerant), so don’t be so hesitant with the pruners on this tree! The time of year you prune will impact how the tree reacts. 

  • Autumn: Prune in the fall to slow the growth (a bit). If you want your tree to stay on the smaller side or be more bush-like, now is the time to prune. Next year, your existing branches will be full of flowers and leaves.
  • Winter: Prune in the colder months to encourage leaf growth. Make your largest and harshest cuts during this time, and the remaining wood will be full of larger leaves the following year.
  • Spring: Prune in early spring to strengthen the tree. If your tree or its branches are not growing straight (or however you’d like them to), cut the tree back to stimulate new and stronger growth. Don’t be too harsh with the pruning here, because removing too much will sacrifice the flowers for that season. 
  • Summer: Prune after flowering to shape the tree to your liking. Remove any weak branches or branches with a poor attachment. The strongest branches should be attached to the trunk at a 45° angle. Too narrow or too wide of an angle can lead to issues in the future. 

If you experience dieback from an early frost, damage from a storm, or sluggish growth, you can cut the tree back to the healthiest branch in spring. You might miss out on the flowers that year, but you can expect the chopped portion to grow back!

Get Inspired With Your Own Empress

The Paulownia is a force of nature. If you’re looking for a strong and resilient tree to provide fragrant, showy flowers (and unbeatable shade), consider planting one or two in your yard. With the new cultivars, you don’t have to worry about this tree taking over. Instead, you can just sit back and enjoy her fast-growing nature—guilt-free! Give the Empress a chance, and we promise you won't regret inviting her into your home. 

Elizabeth Durham

Though cursed at birth with a black thumb, Elizabeth always dreamed of being a plant person. Turns out she just needed a little guidance—now she’s the proud mama of nearly a dozen house plants! After joining FastGrowingTrees.com as a Content Strategist, she’s expanded her knowledge tenfold and learned how to keep her plants alive…most of the time.

As a newbie in the plant world, Elizabeth understands the struggles of beginner gardeners. And as an experienced writer, she loves creating content that makes difficult concepts easy to understand. In her free time, she enjoys immersing herself in nature through daily lunchtime walks, weekend hikes, and visits to the park with her dog Fred.

Questions? Contact Elizabeth at information@fastgrowingtrees.com.

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