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The Royal Empress Tree Reigns


We have a Royal Empress tree at the Garden Centre. Planted a few years now, she is really starting to strut now and causing quite a stir with her elegance. Otherwise known as the Foxglove tree or paulownia tomentosa, this is a truly majestic tree, one of our most impressive in beauty and growth rate. Her large furry leaves are very exotic looking and the scented lilac foxglove-like flowers are super-elegant, produced in springtime on the bare branches. Afterwards the furry leaves start to unfurl.  It’s a deciduous tree which, in favourable conditions, can reach 30m high. Coppiced annually its vigour will produce immense heart-shaped leaves – very dramatic and ornamental in the garden - but you will miss the flowers. A native of China, it is happy between sea level and up to about 2500m high. I love her, but I learnt something extra the other day when a friend in Columbia passed me the following interesting information.


The latest plantings in Columbia are paulownias.  They are considered to be the best investment in the tree world. A few figures for you. Within 5 years of planting young trees, they can reach 25m in height. Their leaves can measure 40cms across. Truly stunningly gigantic and immensely useful, the great mass of leaves are being investigated as the new bio-fuel of the future. Every part of the tree will give a financial and environmental return. The deep roots (as much as 9m long) prevent soil erosion and generate nitrogen. Because they are so quick growing, they are ideal for reforestation and produce oxygen for us.


After much research, about 3 years ago, considerable numbers were planted in Columbia as a commercial crop. The first year leaves were harvested for paper production. Shortly afterwards, strong shoots were cut for making fencing. After 2 years the trees flower and the bees love them for honey production – as do we for their sheer beauty. From then on, and for some 70 years thereafter, timber production is the major gain. The wood is considered semi-precious and is white with well-defined veins; it doesn´t split or twist and is very resistant to rot. There is demand for it within the furniture and construction industries and for making musical instruments.


A viable planting would be one hectare. In Columbia such a planting, with irrigation installed, would cost around €6,500. In favourable conditions, the trees can grow up to 2cm per day and, after 5 years, the sale of wood only from the trees would generate €42,000; pine would produce less than half that return and tend to impoverish the soil. Meanwhile, under the paulownia canopy, chocolate, banana, other fruit trees and herbs can be grown, taking advantage of the additional nitrogen released by the roots. And the leaves are a rich food source for cattle, pigs, chickens etc.


As with a lot of plants, taken out of its natural environment, they can become nuisances. Certain states in the United States now ban planting of it. But our tree has always behaved perfectly; we keep it almost dry, very rarely giving it any water – last summer (that hot, long, dry one!) we gave it a couple of very deep soaks because its leaves were drooping slightly but I’m sure it would have survived without this. It produces lots of seed pods but we have never seen a self-sown seedling. And it always looks magnificent!


In Columbia, they are great fans of the tree; a favourite saying is “the paulownia is good for everything”.

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