Originating in central and western China, the Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa), is often unsurprisingly described in both orientalist and misogynistic terms: showy, aggressive, ornamental, persistent, exotic, and invasive. The Princess Tree is my personal hero.
But neither its common nor scientific name in the West have their roots in the plant’s home country and are instead derived from the vestiges of the Silk Road. In the early 1800s, botanists employed by the East India Trading Company of the Netherlands brought a specimen of this tree back from a trading expedition in China. In an effort to curry favor they seized upon the idea of naming it after the newest member of the royal family, Princess Anna Pavlovna of Russia who had recently married the heir to the throne. Aware of the princess’ penchant for pomp and circumstance they hoped this “showy” tree whose purple flowers can hardly be missed would impress upon her the necessity and import of their work. Judging by their later success, it seems their gift could not have hurt.
Nor was the tree undervalued in its place of origin and indeed Chinese records dating back to the Third Century B.C. describe its medicinal, ornamental, and timber uses. Notably, it is employed as the wood for guqin, a plucked seven-string Chinese zither associated with scholars and literati as well as Confucious. These days, it’s also used to make Dean ML XM electric guitars and custom made surfboards.
Japan jumped on the bandwagon of this woody deciduous tree where it became common practice to plant a Princess Tree on the date of a baby girl’s birth and make a dresser from its wood as a wedding gift.
As of 1840 the United States had yet to enjoy the broad leaves and audacious blooms of the Princess Tree. But as luck would have it, nautical wunderkind and soon to be Civil War hero, Samuel Francis Du Pont was dispatched to China as the Captain of the ship carrying the United States’ representative to the negotiations for the end of the Opium Wars. While waiting for his passenger to complete his deliberations, Du Pont went on a shopping spree for porcelain that was packed in the seed pods of the Princess Tree much like one would use packing peanuts. Back home in Wilmington, Delaware, Du Pont planted the seeds on his estate and the Princess Tree took off from there. And yes, if you were wondering, it is that Du Pont.
Currently, Princess Trees are easily found in Bushwick junkyards, halfway up East Village apartment buildings, and parking lots in Queens.