Battling the Hamptons Heat in the Garden With Paulownia’s

My intolerance for heat is inconvenient for a gardener. I really like cold weather. I don’t even mind working in the garden in my heavy coat when warranted. I do have ways to deal with heat: I drink a lot, tie a handkerchief around my head so the sweat doesn’t flow into my eyes and try to get into the “Zen” of the heat! And in my garden, it’s time to clean up. I mow down all of the volunteers that have bloomed and all of the lily of the valley. There’s one plant that volunteered that I cut hard to the ground in the spring that’s luxuriant and a little scary in the summer.

A few years ago, I noticed a plant growing beside the water barrel that was very unusual. It seemed to appear overnight, had huge fuzzy leaves and a fuzzy stem. It “grew like a weed” (really faster than a weed) and by the end of the summer it was 4’ tall. I decided to keep it and moved it to the garden. With some research, I discovered that it’s a paulownia. I knew that the seeds of paulownias had been used as packing material on ships for imported porcelains during the 19th century and that the seeds had “escaped” but not what the tree looked like. I was excited that a tree from the Orient that came to Sag Harbor as a port of entry had volunteered in my yard. I felt touched by the hand of history! I have recognized two more in the neighborhood that are probably the parents of mine.

When I saw how quickly it grew, I cut it to the ground the next spring. The trunks were interesting and they dried fast. I used them in some art pieces. That summer, the plant regrew to about 6’. Each spring I cut it to the ground…as close to the ground as I can cut. This year it tried to grow 4 trunks. I let it grow two and they are now 10’ tall.

Paulownias also called empress trees, emerald trees, princess trees, are controversial according to research I have done. They are indigenous to China and Japan where they are treasured for their wood and as cultural symbols. The wood is so desirable in Japan that plantations have been established in other countries to supply this market. China has used so much of its indigenous trees that it has planted plantations.

It does seem to be a wonder tree. It grows to 30’-40’ tall by 30’-40’ wide in just a few years. It blooms with masses of fragrant, lavender flowers in the spring. The leaves are wondrously large and beautiful. The wood dries quickly without a kiln. It is strong and light weight with no grain and can be used for construction and cabinetry. It’s drought, disease and insect repellant. A tree can be harvested to the ground eight times and still regrow to a full size.

There are opposite opinions about paulownias. Some strongly advocate planting it as a fast-growing and effective shade tree. Some think it would be good to mass plant for lumber because of its minimal growing requirements and physical characteristics. Some think it’s almost magic! There are nurseries from which it can be purchased that will tell you how wonderful it is. BUT there are many other sites on the internet that say it is an evil, invasive species. They describe how the small winged seeds populate an area and adversely affect the indigenous plants, even comparing it to an ailanthus.

As I was reading the positive comments about paulownias, I considered planting one where a very old oak had to be removed, leaving the front of our house unshaded. A very fast-growing, strong, minimally branched tree whose huge leaves break down easier that oak leaves sounded pretty good. But having read the negative points of view and watching the one in the back yard for several years, I think I will research more and ask some questions before I do that!

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