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Paulownia - the fastest growing tree in the world

  • Paulownia - the fastest growing tree in the world
  • Paulownia - the fastest growing tree in the world
  • Paulownia - the fastest growing tree in the world
  • Paulownia - the fastest growing tree in the world
  • Paulownia - the fastest growing tree in the world

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.

Comments (32)

  1. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    l love Paulownia, and did you know, even large branches have a central "core" which is hollow, like a pipe. If you ever have to prune one, or neaten up a wind-damaged branch, or pollard yours regularly, you can see it quite clearly.

    One of my Clients had a beautiful, huge one which, alas, suddenly died one year. But all was not lost, it threw up a root sucker some 10' from the stump, and now that sucker is itself 30' high and flowering. I've always understood that in the UK they are "at their northern limit" so I'd also be interested to hear if any GPS members "oop north" have this tree.

  2. Grower


    My paulownia tree is about 8 years old, has coped with the wet ground so far up here in York and hasn’t needed any winter protection. It’s 4 metres tall just now, though it is cut well back most years at the end of summer. It has only flowered once (2014) so it’s proving difficult to keep the size reasonable and still get the spring flowers, which are worth waiting for, special to see. I guess that cutting back at the correct time will be critical as the buds form before winter. Later in the summer I find a few older leaves tend to go a bit brown and begin to lose that fresh new look shown in Jeremy’s pics. The roots are strong too - as Rachel says they can sprout up and grow new plants randomly. For example, a large root had to be cut back when it dislodged paving and then sprouted a few new shoots which needed dealing with. A lovely tree, particularly if you’ve got room to let it have the space it needs to flower though I know some people grow them only for their spectacular large leaves or as a shrub cutting down each year. I’ll give mine a feed and see if I can get some buds this year, see 2014 pic and the tree this year.

    • Paulownia - the fastest growing tree in the world
    • Paulownia - the fastest growing tree in the world
  3. Grower

    Jeremy Wright

    Hi Linda - your tree looks very like mine! And I also have to remove some of the lower leaves that go brown later in the summer. But it's a pretty easy quick tidy up. When do you think is the optimum time to cut it back to get the buds and flowers for the following year? September?

  4. Grower


    From my experience, I suspect any autumn pruning will hinder flowering on those branches Jeremy so am going to avoid pruning some branches until after spring next year, when the tree will normally have flowered. This will give the pruned branches all summer to set buds for the following year – I hope! Aren’t we gardeners patient – I’m already thinking of 2018!

  5. Grower

    Jeremy Wright

    Good idea ... and thank you! It'll hopefully save my trial and error resulting in not having flowers till 2020 ;-)

  6. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    This is the outline of my paulownia kawakami.not a good photo but gives an idea of its impact. I have also a fargesii to go in, I grew them from seed easy

    • Paulownia - the fastest growing tree in the world
  7. Grower


    Well done with your seeds Rob and welcome to GPS - I was curious to see where you were located to do so well with the paulownia and note that you are a new member to the site. I love your dramatic pic of the paulownia! A very different impression without all the luscious green leaves on show, but it shows a great effect on the landscape nontheless,

  8. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    This is my jungle giant as referred to in my introduction you can see why Imcall it that. It does get bigger and bigger, but in an out of the way fashion. When it was 'small', it's leaves were enormous, almost gunnera size, unbelievable, now they are a little bigger then a catalpa leaf. I think the seed came from the RHS .
    If you notice next to it, to the left, the conical shrub is hoheria sexostylis just about to reach full flower. That is 8 ft tall or thereabouts, one of many NZ shrub I have, below it is the largest mountain totara I have ever seen, at least 10 ft in any direction. It is. About 4ft high maximum, but enormous across. Like things big yes, but I also love alpines at there most delicate and intricate.
    I live sort of over looking Swansea, 16miles South East and 8 miles or so due north of Llanelli, so facing up against the Atlantic and being high up, the weather can be interesting, but very very mild. With frost never penetrating. It is surprising what does reappear year after year- echium pininana seedlings on the sight of a long dead plant for example, there is never enough of a freeze to kill them, thuogh often the plants give up with the wet.
    Hope I get many more years of experimental growing, I'm just thankful that I have enough space to accommodate it all, just enough.

  9. Grower


    You have a lovely spot for experimenting with your unusual plants Rob, lucky you. I look forward to hearing more as you share your news in the future.

  10. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    Well hopefully it will flower soon, that would look dramatic, but no sign yet.
    What I do need to catch in. A photo is the calandrinia discolor plants in flower up in the glasshouses.They only open up when it is sunny and they are beauties. These are one of the species that bring the Atacama desert to life once, or so in a lifetime, as could be seen last November, truly in the top 5 or so of natures spectacles, otherwise, this is the driest, most desolate place on earth.

  11. Grower


    Here are a couple of flowers from the paulownia this year - will try to do better for next year!

    • Paulownia - the fastest growing tree in the world
  12. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    Mine looks nice with the blue Sky as a backdrop

    • Paulownia - the fastest growing tree in the world
    • Paulownia - the fastest growing tree in the world
    • Paulownia - the fastest growing tree in the world
  13. Grower
  14. Grower


    How lovely Rob, thanks for pics, look forward to mine like this next year!

  15. Grower


    PS did you have any luck with your calandrinia discolor plants Rob?

  16. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    Yes they love my greenhouses, some rotted in the winter, which I would expect with a plant from the driest place on earth, others made it. On top of savied seed, they are popping up everywhere now, so very pleased. I've also, seed of calandrinia grandiflora, a similar specie from further down up in the Andes, as to be espaected, this one is completly hardy, so we'll see what happens.
    I'll be around during the day one time to take photos of the flowers, they are finished by late afternoon.

  17. Grower


    Look forward to seeing a pic Rob.

  18. Grower

    Donna Mc Kiernan

    Hi im new here and have just purchesed some paulownia tomentose seeds. Its july in ireland and maybe far too late to try to plant these?? Any help appreciated as im new to these trees. I was actually looking for lupin tree seeds when i stumbled across these and decided to purchase.

  19. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    Hi Donna,
    The best thing to do is to sow some now while fresh, sow some in Autumn , but the best results I have is from a spring sowing. If you just surface sow, then a thin sprinkling of sharp sand, they need to be in a bit of light. They should be loads of seed to play around with, they are tiny and each one capable of making a tree quite quickly, I'm sure you will end up with plants no matter when you sow.
    Plant world of Devon usually has a good selection of tree lupin seeds, they do trade in Euros depending where you are,, good luck.

  20. Grower


    I was given a seedling about four years ago. It grew well and was planted and then replanated. How long will I have to wait till it flowers? This year the leaves are about 20" x 23" so spectacular. Some root must have been left where it was dug up as another one is now sprouting there.

  21. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    Paulownia fargesii finally in after a long, pot bound wait. Immediatly did the same as yours Kate. Some nice manure dug in nearby, so will make good next year

  22. Grower


    I can't remember which variety mine is. To my horror, when I googled how long would it take to flower a Maryland website came up saying it was an invasive tree to avoid planting because it seeded so easily and sprouted from roots left in the ground. However, the mature trees I've seen haven't done that, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

  23. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    One of my Clients had an old, beautiful one that eventually died. It send up one single root sucker, about 10' away from the original trunk, which is now 30'high and flowering. It only took a couple of years to flower, but I assumed that was due to it being a root sucker, not a seedling. Sorry, Kate, not very helpful!

    I collected seed from it most year and germination was excellent: I would always soak the seed for a few days, wet kitchen paper in a shallow tray: often they would germinate right there on the wet paper!

  24. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    They germinate, well, like foxgloves! Which they are related to, but conditions in this country are not quite the Sam as elsewhere in the world, I have never seen a problem so far.
    I remember I saw pollarded trees in Ivan Hicks' s garden in Hampshire and they did sucker freely. It seems like othe trees if the roots get damaged, they callous and that's when they sucker. I remember helping Ivan clear a thicket of thin, useless suckers behind the stand where previously one was removed from the wall
    My first one from seed took around 12 or so years to flower, as it did this year

  25. Grower


    I'll see if we can get one for my son's garden (if DIL wants it!) from the sucker and then hope I last long enough to see mine flower! Meanwhile, I'll visit Bonython Estate Gardens, where I know they've got one, when it's in flower and enjoy theirs.
    Thanks for your advice.

  26. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Just a word, Rob, sorry to correct you but Paulownia are not related to Foxgloves: they belong to the family Paulowniaceae, whereas Foxgloves (Digitalis) are in the family Plantaginaceae. Paulownia is commonly called "Foxglove Tree" only because the flowers look a bit like those of Digitalis.

    But I do agree that they germinate well!

  27. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    Very true, however at the time I was at college the two were considered very firmly within the scrophulariacaeae. If you are taught this, this is what you believed to be true. Paulownia, though in its own family at the moment is still sometimes considered to be within its old family by some.
    Also, these and the plantaginacaeae are all considered to be still closely relatedtto one another. Out of interest, antirrhinums are now indicated within the antirrhinacae, also formerly scophulariacae.
    As further phytogenetic studies are carried out, all this in turn may well change.
    That is my defence on the matter.

  28. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    No need to be defensive, Rob: one of the worst things about being a botanist at this time is the way our knowledge keeps expanding, and plants keep being re-named and re-classified as a result: it sometimes feels as though it's not possible to keep up.

    And it's not just plants - as far as I am concerned, Pluto will always be a planet!

  29. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    Rachel, this subject drives me araund the twist. I have studied plants both in hobby and in formal education in the past, I turn my back, they make new indications on various levels of classification.
    Mesembryanthemum once covered most if not all members of that family, and it was like a bomb was dropped, many new genera was formed. This is without modern phytogenetic studies. The Flacourtaceae is alas no more and Azara and Idesia as well as other genera have now Been placed in the salicaceae, others have gone elsewhere. Magnoliaceae have been cast adrift on their own, unrelated to anything, poor things!
    Sorry if I was a bit defensive, but this is a pet hate of mine especially when there is every possibility that things might change again next week.
    At one time toy could rely on a plants classification as a good reference, say over many local common names, it seems a bit chaotic to me.
    But in the end you are tight about the poor maligned subjects they are all still the same. Didn't they recently reduce Plutos status to a minor satellite or something silly like that, and now have changed their mind again?
    At least the dogs from wolves theory I can relate to, I like that one
    It was nothing directed at you Rachel, but if I let the subject get to me, it will drive me mad. There is much to still learn in this world and beyond, I don't think the experts have got it as yet.

  30. Grower

    Lucy Kirk Gellatly

    Hi I bought my tree this year and have it in a extra large pot, I’m looking to coppice it to get the larger leafs , any advice would be great fully received,the tree is about 7 ft tall and over ; years old slightly pot bound when rescued from local nursery

  31. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Hi Lucy,

    Sounds like a great specimen for coppicing: you just need to decide how high you want the central trunk to be. The lower you cut it, the lower down the leaves will be, so the easier they will be to see and admire.

    No matter where you choose to chop it, the trunk will sprout a handful of new shoots at that point, so you might need to cut it lower than you would think, in order to get the foliage at the correct height.

    Generally speaking, you do one main cut next year, to remove a section of the main trunk: then in subsequent years, you cut the new shoots back.

    It's one of those jobs where you have to be cruel, to be kind!

  32. Grower

    Lucy Kirk Gellatly

    Thank you for the advice, I will do it in spring , wanted to make sure before I put a saw to a £50 tree😅😂

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