We have a really flamboyant tree here in Columbia, which has been showing up for years. It can be a nasty weed, often occurring in old vacant parking lots and along railroads, broken-down littered places in tiresome urban settings. The tree has a spreading crown, once it attains some size, and it makes dramatic, purple flowers: tubular and cigar-shaped, about 2 inches long, and fragrant. The trees are conspicuous when they bloom in the spring, as there are no leaves at all to see. The trees grow extremely quickly, and attain a height of 20 feet or so in just a couple of seasons. When the leaves fully unfold, they will be velvety, covered with soft, sticky hairs, and as big as a frying-pan. After the flowers are finished, woody capsules, somewhat egg-shaped, are produced. These are up to about 2 inches long, and remain clatteringly attached to the branches long after splitting open. The capsules contain many thousands of very small seeds. The seeds have a tiny, thin wing around their margins, and this makes it very easy for them to travel long distances through the breeze. I've seen seedlings growing along the sidewalk in a number of cities….which leads me to believe that this species could grow just about anywhere. It's called “Princess tree,” and it is native to eastern Asia. Princess tree is actually related to foxgloves, and other members of the “figwort” family. It was intentionally introduced as an ornamental tree into North America, as early as the mid-19th Century. Now, it is fairly common on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The wood is somewhat brittle, and this species often has a reputation as something of a trashy tree, tolerated as a curiosity, mostly because its early spring flowers are so impressive.
Now, the plant pictured here is a slightly different species from the common “princess tree.” It's growing in the front yard of one of my neighbors, planted there just a couple of years ago, and now blooming like crazy. It is also an Asiatic species, potentially forming large trees, and has become very popular recently as an excellent source of pulp and finishing wood, and is now being grown in plantations in the Southeast. This particular species has flowers even larger than those of the common “princess tree.” It features very fragrant blooms with broadly spreading, white or pale purplish corolla lobes. Like princess tree, our Mystery Plant waits until well after the flowers have opened to unfold its leaves. In the orient, it and its near relatives are highly prized as ornamentals. Moreover, the wood is excellent for furniture – and boxes – and is used as a traditional source of a variety of oriental musical instruments. Driving through the countryside in the early spring, you may see a grove of this plant, in full bloom forming a pale, but impressive purplish haze. In cultivation, it grows very quickly indeed, and will re-sprout from the base once harvested. In the last few years, considerable interest has been focused on this plant (and its relatives) as an economically useful tree species. As ornamentals, the trees are surely striking in bloom, but with a kind of overly-enthusiastic tawdriness.
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Answer: “Empress tree,” Paulownia elongata]