Paulownia tomentosa (also known as the Empress Tree, Princess Tree or Foxglove Tree) is a deciduous tree in the genus Paulownia, native to central and western China, but invasive in the US. It grows to 10–25 m tall, with large heart-shaped to five-lobed leaves 15–40 cm across, arranged in opposite pairs on the stem. The flowers are produced before the leaves in early spring, on panicles 10–30 cm long, with a tubular purple corolla 4–6 cm long resembling a foxglove flower.
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.
Carving the wood of Paulownia is an art form in Japan and China. In legend, it is said that the Phoenix will only land on the Empress Tree and only when a good ruler is in power. Several Asian string instruments are made from P. tomentosa, including the Japanese koto and Korean gayageum zithers.
The soft, lightweight seeds were commonly used as a packing material by Chinese porcelain exporters in the 19th century, before the development of polystyrene packaging. Packing cases would often leak or burst open in transit and scatter the seeds along rail tracks. This, together with seeds released by specimens deliberately planted for ornament, has allowed the species to become an invasive weed tree in areas where the climate is suitable for its growth, notably Japan and the eastern United States.
A video tutorial on how to plant seeds can be found here