2006-03-31 / Beauty in the Backyard

The Original Mystery Plant

Dr. John Nelson

Photo by John Nelson
Photo by John Nelson This flamboyant tree is something of a weed. It has dramatic, purple flowers tubular and cigar-shaped, about 2" long and fragrant. The trees are conspicuous when they bloom, in the spring as there are no leaves at all. The trees grow extremely quickly and attain a height of 20' or so in just a couple of seasons. When the leaves fully unfold, they may be the size of frying-pans and are velvety, covered with soft, sticky hairs.

After the flowers are finished, woody capsules, somewhat egg-shaped, are produced. These are up to about 2" long and remain clatteringly attached to the branches long after splitting open. The capsules contain many thousands of very small seeds. The seeds have a tiny, thin wing around their margins, and this makes it very easy for them to travel long distances through the breeze. It can grow just about anywhere, especially in urban areas.

It's called princess tree, and is native to eastern Asia. It's related to foxgloves and other members of the figwort family. Princess tree, or Paulownia tomentosa, was intentionally introduced as an ornamental tree into North America as early as the mid-19th century.

Photo by Mimi MaddockPhoto by Mimi Maddock Now, it is fairly common on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Its wood is somewhat brittle, and this species often has a reputation as something of a trashy tree that is tolerated mostly because its early spring flowers are so impressive.

The plant pictured here is a slightly different species from the common princess tree. It is one of several additional Asiatic species, potentially forming large trees, that have become very popular recently as an excellent source of pulp and finishing wood and is now being grown in plantations in the Southeast.

This particular species has flowers even larger than those of the common princess tree. It features very fragrant blooms with broadly spreading, white or pale purplish corolla lobes.

The mystery plant waits until well after the flowers have opened to unfold its leaves. In the orient, it is highly prized as ornamentals. The wood is excellent for furniture and is used as a traditional source of a variety of musical instruments. You may see a grove of this plant in full bloom in the spring forming a pale but impressive purplish haze. In cultivation, it grows very quickly and will re-sprout from the base once harvested. For more information, visit the web site of the American Paulownia Association, www.paulowniatrees.org or call 301-790-3075.

Answer to last week's mystery plant

India fig,

Tuna opuntia,

Opuntia ficus-indic

Dr. John Nelson is the curator of the USC Herbarium.

To learn more about the Herbarium, call him at

777-8196. His department also offers free plant identification.


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