Royal empress trees might go by a variety of names, but they are all called Paulownia tomentosa. This deciduous tree grows quickly in its natural environment of western and central China. Governments in North America consider it to be an exotic invasive plant because of how fast it spreads and grows.
The generic name of the Royal Empress Tree honors Anna Pavlovna of Russia. The epithet at the end of the name literally means “covered in hairs” in Latin.
Royal Empress Trees can grow over 80 feet tall when their growth is left unchecked. It produced heart-shaped leaves, sometimes with up to five lobes, that can be up to 16 inches across. Fragrant flowers show in the early spring, and then the seeds show in small, winged capsules that disperse through water and wind.
Several pros and cons of Royal Empress Trees are worth reviewing if you’re thinking about adding this species to your property.
List of the Pros of Royal Empress Trees
1. You can have a mature tree in your yard quickly.
The Royal Empress Tree provides instant results when you want to have a mature tree growing on your property. Most of them top out at 30 feet in height within a few years, and some can be 20 feet wide with their spread. You’ll need to watch the twigs and branches in high wind or ice storms since the rapid growth creates fragility, but it is still a hardy species.
You’ll receive up to 70 years of life from a single planting, while some of the Royal Empress Trees can live beyond 150 years.
2. These trees create impressive foliage.
Gardeners and homeowners love the Royal Empress Tree because of the fuzzy foliage that this species produces. The heart-shaped leaves and rapid ability to provide shade create an inviting atmosphere. If you cut the trees back, this action stimulates growth and increases the size of the leave. Younger trees won’t produce flowers, but they will create extra-large leaves that are more than a foot in diameter.
When summer turns to autumn, the leaves will turn from their light green color to a shade of gold or bronze. It creates a sight that is just as spectacular as what aspen trees can produce as the seasons change.
3. The Royal Empress Tree produces fragrant flowers.
The rust-colored flowers from Royal Empress Trees are prominent in winter. That’s why some cultures call this species a “foxglove” tree. Before the leaves start appearing in the spring, you’ll see violet flowers with yellow stripes and dark spots appear. It provides your yard with a strong, persistent scent of vanilla while providing early color for your garden. You’ll want to take care of them if they appear early because frost can nip them back quickly.
4. These trees can tolerate a variety of soil conditions.
Very few tree species have the capability of tolerating the wide range of soil conditions that the Royal Empress Tree can manage. It prefers to have deep, well-drained soil to maximize its shallow root spread, but the trees don’t mind growing in sand, clay, or highly acidic soil either. It can even manage conditions that are highly alkaline.
If you live in a coastal region, the Royal Empress Tree will still grow in saline soil. Pollution and sea spray doesn’t bother this species. It can grow in colder or hotter climates, but it can overwhelm native plants quickly with its rapid growth. During a wet, hot summer, some trees can grow 15 feet in a single year.
5. Royal Empress Trees can handle a severe pruning.
These trees can handle a significant pruning at the start of the growing season. Some people like to cut Royal Empress Trees back to the ground after its first year to encourage a straighter, more upright growth pattern. You’ll need to keep grass and weeds away from the seedling during its first year of life, but then it can fight for itself without much care. Its rapid growth rate tends to outpace any of the issues that disease or pests can cause. This species is also highly resistant to drought once it can establish a robust root base.
6. It is a deer-resistant tree.
If you have problems with deer visiting your property, then a Royal Empress Tree is something to consider planting. The animals aren’t going to leave it alone entirely, but this species isn’t going to be their first choice for dinner. If other food supplies are lacking, then the deer will consider your new tree a treat. It will be out of danger once it reaches a height of about six feet. As it continues to grow, few animals will come around to feast off of the leaves. That means your primary job is to remove the organic materials that it drops throughout the year.
7. The Royal Empress Tree is one of the most resilient you can find.
You can do almost anything to Royal Empress Trees, and it will not permanently hurt them. The stories of its ability to survive are incredible. Companies have grown this species for its lumber, harvested them, and had the tree recover from the stump and roots to start growing again. Construction contractors have used bulldozers to remove these trees, only to find that the roots will sprout another trunk in no time at all. It can survive drought, fire, lightning strikes, and almost any other kind of natural disaster.
8. Animals can eat the leaves of this tree for food.
The Royal Empress Tree is deciduous with extra-large leaves, so their weight causes them to fall periodically throughout the year. Unlike the standard foxglove, the leaves are not toxic to animals. Some areas will harvest them so that they can have food products available for their foraging livestock.
It may not be a great option if you’re looking for a pasture tree since it can drop its seeds throughout the year, but it can also give you some extra shade. You can have a 40-footer in just eight years for your animals.
9. You can use the wood for a variety of purposes.
The reason why the Royal Empress Tree grows so rapidly is that it has an evolutionary adaptation that is similar to grasses. They can use C4 carbon fixation, which is uncommon among dicots. If you plant just one acre of these trees, then they can absorb over 100 metric tons of carbon dioxide in a single year. Farmers will grow them as a cash crop because their wood is useful for musical instrument, building houses, flooring, and other typical hardwood products.
It can also be an ornamental tree for gardens. Some governments consider it to be invasive, but the Royal Horticultural Society has also given this species their Award of Garden Merit.
10. The Royal Empress Tree has cultural significance.
Japanese families often plant a Royal Empress Tree at the birth of a girl. Then it will mature at the same time she does. When it is time for her to be married, then the tradition is to cut the tree down, carving the wood into articles for her dowry. The art form of managing this species is one of the most impressive uses of this wood.
11. Some species are not as invasive as others.
A handful of different species are sometimes called the Royal Empress Tree, so you will want to look at the exact tree you want to plant. The Paulownia elongate is easier to control, allowing you to take advantage of the growth benefits without fearing how fast it can spread. Not every community distinguishes between the different options with their landscaping codes or weed control policies, so you’ll want to speak with local officials before planting this tree.
If you plant an invasive species without permission, you may be subject to fees or fines in some jurisdictions.
List of the Cons of Royal Empress Trees
1. Fast root growth creates a high risk of property damage.
The rapid upward growth of the Royal Empress Tree is matched only by the levels of root development that occur. This species tends to have surface roots that spread rapidly across the ground, which means there is a high potential for structural damage if buildings are close to the trunk. There isn’t much you can do to control this spread since the trees prefer to establish a shallow root base.
That means you’ll have a resilient tree that can withstand some challenging environmental conditions, but you’ll need to create deep barriers to prevent the roots from finding structural weaknesses. If you have a sprinkler system on your property, then you probably don’t want to plant these trees.
2. The tree produces a dense shade that you must manage.
The Royal Empress Tree creates shade underneath its leaves that is so strong that nothing can grow underneath its canopy. You’ll also notice that the tree drops its leaves regularly throughout the year instead of during the autumn season like most deciduous varieties. That means you’ll need to clean up around the trunk regularly to prevent grass from being smothered. In some situations, the density of leaf fall can be so high that it can prevent its own roots from receiving the nutrients needed for life.
3. Seeds from Royal Empress Trees will litter the ground.
The reason why Royal Empress Trees are considered an invasive species is because of how quickly the seeds spread. It produces winged pods that can deliver multiple seeds a great distance away from the primary tree. Because the flowers show so early, you can have some trees producing seeds before the summer months appear. Then you’ll have a persistent mess to clean up well into the winter months.
4. The removal of an established tree is almost impossible.
Many people will encourage homeowners to plant Royal Empress Trees because of how fast they grow. The amount of carbon dioxide that they absorb each year is quite high when compared to other species. Because of its invasive nature, you’ll find most governments don’t want you to plant this tree in your yard. It is usually classified as a weed.
Once it established itself, eradicating a Royal Empress Tree is almost impossible. You must remove the tree, its stump, and all of the roots to ensure that it cannot start growing once again. If you miss only a small piece, there is still the potential for future growth. That means the only way to ensure its complete removal if you change your mind is to blast it out of the ground.
5. It prefers sun or partial shade for the best growth.
If you already have a robust canopy protecting your property, then the Royal Empress Tree is going to struggle to grow under those conditions. It prefers to have a spot with direct sunshine so that it can maximize its carbon dioxide absorption. Partial shade is okay as long as there are times when the sun can be on the tree directly. If you don’t have this option on your property, then you will not want to plant this species because it will fail to thrive.
One way to get around this disadvantage is to grow the tree indoors or to use artificial lighting. Because of its rapid growth rate, it typically requires specialized facilities that the average homeowner doesn’t have on their property.
If you want to have a tree that can grow rapidly, then the Royal Empress Tree might be your best option. It has the potential to provide up to 15 feet of growth in a single year under hot, wet conditions. You’ll receive a hardwood, shade-producing canopy in return that has easy care instructions, but the potential to be highly invasive.
The Royal Empress Tree may have originated in China, but it has been in North America for almost 200 years. It is a first-class shade tree, but it can also kill off everything in your garden.
When looking at the pros and cons of Royal Empress Trees, then remember how fast its roots will grow. Keep it away from your home, outbuildings, and any septic lines to prevent damage. It will need to be kept moist for the first year, but it can fend for itself afterward to become a resilient planting
Natalie Regoli, Esq. is the author of this post and the editor-in-chief of our blog. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington and her Masters in Law from The University of Texas School of Law. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Natalie has almost two decades of experience as a lawyer and banker. If you would like to reach out to contact Natalie, then go here to send her a message.