Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Paulownia tomentosa

I missed the thousandth anniversary of the world's first novel in 2008. Better late than never, I am making amends by observing the thousand and first. The Tale of Genji, which depicts the cloistered world of the imperial Japanese aristocracy of a millennium ago, is thought to have been written in about 1008. An abiding presence in the novel is the empress tree, Paulownia tomentosa. The delicate lavender hue of the Paulownia flower is the color of romantic attachment throughout the tale. That color is murasaki, the first name of Genji's author, Murasaki Shikibu. Genji's adoptive daughter (and concubine!) is also called Murasaki. Genji's mother, who dies shortly after Genji's birth, is the Lady of the Paulownia Court. Genji carries on a romantic affair with his stepmother, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Lady of the Paulownia Court.

A tree with the aristocratic associations(1) and exquisitely beautiful blooms of Paulownia might be expected to keep only the best company. Sadly, the tree's star has fallen. In Plainfield Paulownias are most likely to be found in the neglected precincts of the railroad tracks, keeping company with disreputable black locusts (http://plainfieldtrees.blogspot.com/2007/05/black-locust-robinia-pseudoacacia.html). You can see the two species commingling in the wooded strip of land that borders the tracks along South Second Street. America doesn't share Japan's enthusiasm for Paulownia. Despite the beauty of its blooms, Paulownia is regarded as a weed in this country.

I'm glad to report that Plainfield has at least a few beautiful and well cared-for Paulownias. One is in the front yard of 1038 Central Avenue, pictured below. I despaired of finding a photogenic Paulownia in town until Hugh Goodspeed directed me to the Central Avenue tree. (If you visit to have a look, don't miss the white oak only yards away, one of the grandest white oaks in the area. It is pictured at the end of this posting.)

Pictured below is another large Paulownia on Leland Avenue in front of Stillman Gardens.

Jo-Ann Bandomer pointed out this tree to me last spring. She sent an email describing it as looking like a tree-form wisteria. A Paulownia in bloom could easily be mistaken for a wisteria. The huge flowers, which appear before the leaves, are of the same general shape and color as wisteria blooms. Once the leaves appear, the resemblance to wisteria is lost. The large, heart-shaped leaves of Paulownias closely resemble the leaves of catalpas (http://plainfieldtrees.blogspot.com/2007/06/catalpa.html).

Paulownia is not often planted in the United States except on tree farms. It's considered messy, prone to splitting, and invasive.(2) We grow the tree on farms to export its wood to Japan. The wood is highly prized in Japan for its light weight, easy workability, and resistance to rot. It is also said to be fire-resistant. Paulownia wood is a traditional material for the fabrication of chests in which to store kimonos. Several sources relate that it was once customary in Japan and China to plant a Paulownia on the birth of a daughter. The tree would grow fast enough to provide wood for a dowry chest at her marriage. The wood is also used for traditional musical instruments and clogs.

The Japanese still value Paulownias for their beauty, not just as sources of wood. The Paulownia tree is honored by depiction of its flower on the seal of the Japanese prime minister. It would be hard to imagine a flower as the symbol of any American government office. What might Dick Cheney's flower have been?

Schooled by samurai movies, Americans think of the Japanese masculine ideal as silent, loyal, duty-bound, fearless, and skilled at swordplay. The Tale of Genji reflects a different pole of Japanese culture. Genji's era preceded the one depicted in samurai films, and the milieu is the court, not the battlefield. The masculine ideal in Genji's world bears little resemblance to the hero of the samurai film. Not hesitant to shed a tear in contemplation of a beautiful view, he seeks to impress the ladies by the skill with which he mixes the colors of his robes and by the cleverness of his poetry. He prides himself on his ability to blend scents for his own personal perfume. He knows nothing of the world outside the hothouse environment of Kyoto and is afraid to leave central Kyoto at night for fear of highwaymen.(3)

I'm on the lookout for another tree to celebrate an anniversary. This year is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns. Does anyone know of a photogenic Scotch pine?

White oak 1038 Central Avenue

(1) Not only Japanese royalty, Russian as well. The tree was given its Latin name Paulownia to honor Russian Princess Anna Pavlovna.
(2) Paulownia has earned a place on the Plant Conservation Alliance's Alien Plant Working Group Least Wanted List. http://www.nps.gov/plants/alien/fact/pato1.htm
(3) The World of the Shining Prince, Ivan Morris, Kodansha International 1994, p. 145.
Copyright Gregory Palermo


Anonymous said...

I love this blog. Thank you again so much for sharing your knowledge. I always feel a little smarter after I read it. Thanks again.

cnjjeff said...

Hi there, its time for an update. The royal pawlonia has gotten its share of exposure. How about a feature on Crape Myrtle. I have a great example at my home that was planted back before they were available in NJ and there are many others in the area that are still in bloom.

Gregory said...

I have wanted to do a post on crape myrtles for a while. The oldest one I know of in Plainfield is on Putnam Avenue. Where is yours? You can send the address to gregpalermo@gmail.com.

Anonymous said...

Hi Greg, Happy New Year! Hope you and yours are all well. I don't know that this is any "special tree" although you seem to find something special about all of them, as I was driving down East Front St. I noticed a tree that seemed to have green buds at the tips. It was noticeable, because all the other trees are bare. One is on the right side of East Front (as you head toward Scotch Plains) in front of Beacon Village and another on the left side in front of Netherwood Village. I was just curious, thanks. Jo-Ann Bandomer

Anonymous said...

interesting article. I would love to follow you on twitter. By the way, did you guys know that some chinese hacker had busted twitter yesterday again.

Patricia McConnell Lawrence said...

Just found your blog when looking for more info on Stillman Gardens. I grew up in North Plainfield and remember going to a special showing of a Mary Pickford silent that was filmed at the present site of Stillman Gardens --- "Madam Butterfly," I think. It was quite the Japanese garden back in the early 20th century!

Anonymous said...

My name is Patti Mobus/Snover. I was raised on Leland Ave, by Cook School.
I am now in Florida; however, keep in touch with Plainfield via friends who are still there. If anyone asks, there is a history as to why that tree was planted at Skillman gardens.
I don't remember who the property belonged to, however, there was an oriental type dwelling built there with a bridge across the creek. I remember lovely gardens and a peaceful feeling every time we went by there. I was young and I remember being horrified when they destroyed it to build those apartments there. The bridge was still there the last time I went by!

olddoc said...

Dr. Palermo, It is refreshing to see that you have resumed your blog. For one who can't differentiate from climbing ivy and "poison ivy" I have found your world to be most fascinating

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...


I have a question for the webmaster/admin here at plainfieldtrees.blogspot.com.

May I use part of the information from your post right above if I give a link back to your website?


Gregory Palermo said...

Please feel free to use any information in the posts if you credit the source.
Greg Palermo