Paulownia tomentosa
empress tree

Bignoniaceae (bignonia family)
Paulownia tomentosa leaf & flower. John Rawlings, ca. 2005

A rather striking tree with great hairy leaves and flowers in the form of delicately figured 2-inch trumpets that appear just before the leaves. The tree conveys a distinctly tropical impression when in leaf (it is deciduous), but is at home in a cold climate. There is a specimen in the inner northwest island in the Inner Quad. It was named for Anna Paulowna (1795–1865), daughter of Tsar Paul I, not to be confused with the airborne ballerina Anna Pavlova, after whom the famous Australasian dessert was named.

As winter progresses, fruits form but some flowers remain; they take the form of a tube that represents the fusion of petals in prehistoric times and sit in a brown suede cup. If you carefully pull the corolla out of the cup a ½-inch pistil emerges, attached to the domed green ovary in the cup. Tearing the tube open, you will see four stamens growing from the inside wall of the tube, not directly from the ovary as with other flowers. On ripening, the ovary develops into a fat green fruit the shape of a surveyor’s plumb bob. Flowers, fruit, and last year’s opened fruit can be seen on the tree in December, and masses of fine hairy seeds can be shaken loose.

Name derivation: Paulownia – For Anna Paulowna (1795–1865), daughter of Tsar Paul I; tomentosa – tomentosa: hairy (the leaves).

About this Entry: The main text of this entry is from the book Trees of Stanford and Environs, by Ronald Bracewell, published 2005.