If you want a tree to make an impact in your garden, and do it fast, then look no further than Paulownia tomentosa. Where other greenery can all become a bit of a summer smudge, the Paulownia will very soon stand out with its huge, handsome lime green leaves up to 20cm wide that 'light up' in the morning and evening sun. The common name Empress tree is well deserved.
The specimen shown (photos yesterday evening) is just four years old. It's yet to flower, but when it does it'll have large panicles of attractive pale violet flowers which appear before the leaves in spring. These tend to grow toward the top of the tree, so choose a site if you can where they can be viewed - from a bedroom window perhaps.
In the UK, P. tomentosa will grow to 12m. But fear not, if it gets to big you can pollard it in late winter/early spring. You'll lose the flowers that season, but it will produce new shoots up to 2 metres long before the autumn and the leaves can become 2-3 times their usual size - up to 60cm! I'm looking forward to trying that.
P. tomentosa can be caught by frosts, but it's quick to regenerate. Ours also had it's bark almost completely ringed by a deer in its first year and I thought we'd lose it. But it shrugged that off too. I've heard the tree is less tolerant of deeper cold and wet in the North, and would be interested to hear how others have faired. With its soft downy leaves, I'm sure it prefers a more sheltered spot.
The fastest growing Tomentosa of all is T. elongata, but its tall, upright form is less suited to garden settings.
Paulownia tomentosa rightly deserves its RHS Award of Garden Merit.