Princess Tree Is No Princess

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Paulownia tomentosa, known by the common names princess tree, empress tree and royal paulownia, is a non-native and highly invasive species in North Carolina. Most folks have noticed that by now, but there are still sources online where trees or seeds can be purchased. And there are a great number of princess trees on private property that could be taken down so as to reduce the threat to natural areas. While most of the princess tree infestations I’ve seen through the years are in the mountain and piedmont regions of the state, I recently spotted a single tree in full bloom along Hwy 70 outside New Bern. A single tree is of real concern due to the prolific seed set and typical germination rate.
According to references, one seed capsule contains up to 2,000 seeds, with a germination percentage of up to 90% under nursery propagation conditions. With those numbers, we’re getting into Andromeda Strain territory (consult with an over-60 movie fan for a full explanation). In 2021, avoid planting Paulownia tomentosa, and remove existing trees whenever possible.
Woody seed-bearing fruit

Woody seed-bearing fruit (capsule) of Paulownia tomentosa.

One capsule

One capsule may contain up to 2,000 seeds.

winged seeds

The unusual, winged seeds are lighter than a feather and only 4-5 mm across.