Empress tree (Paulownia tormentosa)

Grass area north of SMATE Map

Large heart-shaped leaves with up to five lobes arranged in pairs along the stem. It erupts in spring with spectacular blue-purple, trumpet-shaped flowers. Although native to China it was named in honor of the Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna of Russia and Empress of the Netherlands. Old Paulownias can attain very considerable size. One of the largest in Washington State is found adjacent to the Amtrak Terminal in Fairhaven; it was planted in the early 1900s and has been much trimmed, sawn and brutalized since, but still is worth a special visit in early spring.

Paulownias are prized for their wood in Japan, where they are used to make clogs. In China, an old custom is to plant an Empress Tree when a baby girl is born. The fast-growing tree matures when she does. When she is eligible for marriage the tree is cut down and carved into wooden articles for her dowry.

The tree you are admiring was planted partly as an exercise in contrition. Another, larger Paulownia once graced the plaza between Haggard Hall and the older portion of Wilson Library. When the library complex was remodeled, this earlier, much-beloved tree, together with an outdoor sculpture of some importance, fell victim to "progress." The ensuing, inevitable outcry, led with great vigor by Dr. Richard Francis of the English Department, resulted in the planting of this tree. Beautiful as it is, it is several decades away from the splendor of its predecessor. A somewhat smaller member of the species is growing near the southwest corner of Haggard Hall.