Planting, Growing, and Marketing Royal Paulownia

Facts About Planting, Growing, and Marketing the Empress Tree

Paulownia tomentosa (Empress tree)
James Young /Dorling Kindersley/ Getty Images

Paulownia tomentosa has had marvelous press on the Internet. Several Australian and United States companies make claims of extraordinary growth, unbelievable wood values, and magnificent beauty. Paulownia, they write, can shade an area in record time, resist insects, feed livestock, and improve the soil component — and in some ways this is correct.

But is this just hype or is the plant truly a "supertree" Let me introduce you to Royal Paulownia and you just might rethink the abilities given to the tree by producers.

Empress Tree — Mythology vs. Facts

You can tell this tree is very special right away, from just its name. The plant's pedigree and regal names include Empress Tree, Kiri Tree, Sapphire Princess, Royal Paulownia, Princess Tree, and Kawakami. The surrounding mythology abounds and many cultures can claim title to embellishing the plant's many legends.

Many cultures love and embrace the tree which in turn promoted its worldwide popularity. The Chinese were the first to establish a much-practiced tradition that included the tree. An oriental Paulownia is planted when a daughter is born. When she marries, the tree is harvested to create a musical instrument, clogs or fine furniture; they then live happily ever after. Even today, it is a valued wood in the orient and top dollar is paid for its procurement and used for many products.

A Russian legend has it that the tree was named Royal Paulownia in honor of Princess Anna Pavlovnia, daughter of Russia's Czar Paul I. Its name Princess or Empress tree was an endearment to a nation's rulers.

In the United States, many of these trees have been planted for wood production but naturalized wild stands grow along the Eastern Seaboard and through the mid-western states. Paulownia's range is said to have expanded because of the seed pods used in packing shipped cargo from China early in the last century. Containers were emptied, winds scattered, the tiny seeds and a "fast paulownia forest" developed.

The tree has been in America since introduction during the mid-1800s. It was first "discovered" as a profitable tree in the 1970s by a Japanese timber buyer and the wood was purchased at attractive prices. This sparked a multimillion-dollar export market for the wood. One log is said to have sold for $20,000 US dollars. That enthusiasm has mostly run its course.

One thing to remember is, the wood is totally ignored by domestic timber companies in the United States and speaks volumes about its economic potential, at least to me. But utilization studies by several universities including Tennessee, Kentucky, Maryland, and Virginia suggests the potential for a favorable future market.

Should You Plant Royal Paulownia?

There are some compelling reasons to plant Paulownia. The tree has some of the best soil, water, and nutrient retaining properties. It can be made into forest products. At first blush, it makes sense to plant Paulownia, watch it grow, improve the environment, and make a fortune at the end of ten to twelve years. But is it really that simple?

Here are the attractive reasons for growing the tree:

  • Paulownia is a light, air curable wood, that does not warp, twist, or crack. The tree is fire resistant and water repellent. These are very good wood qualities and the tree has all of these.
  • Paulownia can be sold for pulp, paper, poles, construction material, plywood, and furniture and at top dollar. You still have to be lucky enough to be growing the trees in an area with a good market.
  • Paulownia can be commercially harvested in five to seven years. This is true but only for some products made by companies that may or may not be buying at any given time.
  • Paulownia is a beautiful tree and is easily propagated from root cuttings. But it can also become a problem in the landscape because of its messy habits.
  • Paulownia is nitrogen rich and makes an excellent livestock fodder and soil amending mulching material. 

If all of these statements are true, and for the most part they are, you would be doing yourself a favor to plant the tree. It would, in fact, be a great idea to plant the tree on a good site. Great for the environment, great for shade, great for soil, great for water quality and great for a beautiful landscape. But is it economically sound to plant Paulownia over large areas?

Are Paulownia Plantations Economically Practical?

A recent discussion on a favorite forestry forum was "are Paulownia plantations economic?"

Gordon J. Esplin writes "promoters of Paulownia plantations are claiming incredible growth (4 years to 60', 16" at breast height) and value (eg $800/cubic meter) for Paulownia trees. This seems to be too good to be true. Are there any independent, scientific studies on the species?"

James Lawrence of Toad Gully Growers, a Paulownia propagation company in Australia sums it up completely. "There has, unfortunately, been much over-hyped promotion of Paulownia. It is true, however, that under the right conditions, Paulownia produces valuable timber in a shorter time frame..." Lawrence goes on to say that it usually takes from 10 to 12 years to achieve a size economical to mill and is not construction strong enough to be used as building material. "It is most likely to find its place in moldings, doors, window frames, veneers, and furniture."

He further says that trees in the "cooler regions of Australia may be more slowly grown and consequently of higher timber quality - close growth rings are desired for furniture - than those grown in warmer climates; however, the higher rate of crop rotation in the warmer zones should compensate for any lower returns per m3." Lawrence just indicated, at least to me, that we need to take a deep breath and grow the tree slower for optimum quality.

And what about a little thing called market?

Remembering that the top three things that affect the value of any real property are "location, location, location", I would suggest that the top three things that affect the value of standing timber price are "markets, markets, markets."

Paulownia is no different from any other tree in this regard and you need to find a market before planting and I have found no support for a market on the Internet. The literature suggests that the present US market is extremely under-developed in Paulownia and one source actually suggested that there is "no present market". The future of this tree depends on a future market.

I did run across a credible reference to price. Mississippi State University indicates in a report on "Unique Species and Uses" that Paulownia logs "have been found growing in the Mississippi Delta and south along the Mississippi River. Paulonia logs have been in high demand in Japan and bring excellent prices (my emphasis) to landowners in Mississippi." I have yet to find that buying source.

Also, there are risks associated with any tree planting venture. Paulownia is no different. It is sensitive to drought, root rot, and diseases. There is also the economic risk of producing a tree with little future economic value.