Appalachia Wildflowers & Trees Of Appalachia

The Princess Tree

The emporer tree

I’m finally ready to share the secret of my fairly tale with you. If you missed the post about my own secret fairy tale-click here to read it first and then hit the back button to continue reading here.

The Princess Tree


It’s been 3 weeks since I first told you about my fairy tale-in that time it’s grown even larger-now casting a large shadow over my kitchen window. 10 feet of growth in one summer-amazing and spooky all at the same time. Jack’s beanstalk immediately comes to mind, but this fairy tale comes from a far and distant land-China.

Paulownia tomentosa is the scientific name of the species with the more common names being The Princess Tree or Empress Tree. Even though the tree is not native to any portion of North America, it can be found from Canada to Florida and out west in Washington and California too.

Once the tree matures it has purple drooping blooms which are then replaced by rather large seed capsules that are noticeable from quite a far distance.

Before the tree matures it has amazing green leaves that can grow to be as large as 3 feet wide. After maturity the leaves are smaller and more uniform in nature. The tree can reach heights of between 65 and 125 feet. (hence it can’t stay hugged up to my kitchen window)

Unfortunately Paulownia tomentosa is invasive in some places and interferes with the native vegetation of certain areas. If you’ve ever ridden through the Nantahala Gorge you can see the trees seem to thrive a little to well in that environment.

Paulownia tomentosa the princess tree in appalachia


Just down the road from my house, where Pap lived when he was a boy, there is a lone Princess Tree standing tall in the pasture. There have been a few others here and there around our holler-but I’m not aware of any that have reached maturity. There used to be one in my Uncle’s yard-it never got very tall maybe 20 foot. It was right by the road so it was easy to keep an eye on. I made sure to look at it when cold weather arrived in the fall of the year. After the first heavy frost-every leaf on the entire tree would fall off overnight. The leaves would just be laying around the bottom of the tree like giant curled pieces of paper.

Pap’s Uncle Blaine brought the tree in the photo above out here with him back in the day.

Blaine Elmer Wilson 1911 1959


I say out here-he brought it from the Asheville area. Our family has made their own sort of migration between Brasstown and the Asheville/Canton area over the years. One generation will decide to go back to one or the other-and another will decide to stay where they are-but it’s always seemed like we have 2 home bases somehow.

Blaine lived from 1911 till 1959-so I never knew him-but Pap has fond memories of his Uncle. Pap said Blaine loved to fish and hunt-he was even President of a Wildlife Association at one time. Blaine found the fishing especially nice out this way.

Pap said Blaine brought what he thought were Catawba trees to plant around the old home place. Catawba trees are well liked by fishermen-because they attract what is commonly known as a catawba worms-actually they’re caterpillars-but either way fish seem to like them.

Blaine thought if the trees grew-he’d have instant fish bait when he came out to visit and fish. But he unknowingly had Princesses Trees-and the only one that survived is the one in the pasture.

Empress Tree


After my fairy tale started growing I started asking questions about the tree and Pap told me the story of Blaine and his hopes of ready to go fish bait. I never thought of asking around to see if any of my family had a photo of Blaine until Pap told me the story. Sure enough someone had a picture-I couldn’t wait to see Blaine’s face-you know to see if he looked like any of us.

In a very serendipitous manner I was sent the picture of Blaine holding the fish, even though the person who sent it had no clue why I wanted a photo of Blaine or anything about Pap’s story of Blaine and the fish bait trees.

So why do I think the Princess Tree growing under my kitchen window is a fairy tale? Because in the 17 years we’ve lived in this house-not one Princess Tree has come to grow around our place. The tree is magical because it grew over 10 feet in one summer and has 3 foot wide leaves.

But mostly I think it’s a fairy tale because-my Great Uncle Blaine, a man I never knew, brought the parent of my Princess Tree to my mountain holler all those years ago. It’s like Blaine settled down by the house to wait and then when I was ready he knocked on the kitchen window and told me to come find out who he was.

My fairy tale came full circle once I was sent the photo of Blaine holding a fish-and now I’m sure Uncle Blaine won’t mind a bit when I let The Deer Hunter cut the tree down. Pap says all I have to do is stick one of those giant leaves in the dirt and I can grow another Princess Tree just like that.



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  • Reply
    September 23, 2012 at 1:13 am

    Oh, I’m so sorry that you have to have the princess tree cut down. I understand as you can’t have one that close to the house, but do try taking a branch of it and put it in water with a piece of willow…willows have natural rooting hormone and will help it root, then you can plant that piece a bit farther from the house so that you can still enjoy the lovely purple blooms and the wonderous leaves. We have princess trees here in Oregon as well. They are rather scarce though. I’ve never heard of anyone having them spread here. There is a house a few miles from mine where they have planted them in a line all around their property. They were really pretty this spring! We have one in the courtyard at the hospital I work for. I remember the first year it grew….sometimes you could almost swear you could see it grow it grew so fast. It didn’t fare too well this past winter. I hope it makes it though this one, as it’s a lovely tree. It didn’t bloom this spring though…I think because it was so stressed and lost so many branches in the winter perhaps. Thank you so much for sharing your intertwined stories about the tree and your uncle! Blessings!

  • Reply
    susie swanson
    September 20, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    That’s a new one on me Tipper..I’ve never heard of it. I may have seen them and didn’t know what they were..

  • Reply
    September 20, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    Oh, forgot to mention, there is a Paulownia in the side yard of the Hermitage (Andrew Jackson’s home). It is huge!

  • Reply
    September 20, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    Have a Paulownia in my backyard I planted 8 years ago. Yes, they do grow fast! I got mine from a fellow in TX.
    We have catalpas here in Okla. as well and they are well known for the worms as fish bait.

  • Reply
    September 20, 2012 at 11:21 am

    Did any of you ever hear of the cucumber tree? When I was much younger I saw them in Graham County and recently saw one in Monroe County. TN. I’ve never seen them anywhere else.

  • Reply
    Lonnie Dockery
    September 19, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    That’s what I was going to guess- paulownia tomentosa!! Actually,I’ve never heard of them–or of Princess Trees. I surely must have seen them and just didn’t know what they were. I do what a Catawba tree is…and what to use the worms for! That’s a great story Tipper. Great job!

  • Reply
    September 19, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    Jim and Howland..
    I beg to differ on the name of the Catawba tree….I have always heard my kin from NC and SC say that the name was originally Catawba from the Catawba people of SC and NC..because it grew near and around the Catawba Indian nation of SC…When seeing the Indian bean tree as a child, I thought it was the longest green bean I had ever seen, getting corrected to the name of the tree by kin..
    Now then, the scientist/flora expert, so to speak, when naming the tree, misspelled the Catawba peoples name of the tree and as it sounded like and was pronounced Catalpa by the Indian peoples language, and it was offically written down on paper as that name, it had to stand…
    Now then, I have been to Catawba county, NC of the famous thin skin foxy grape, many times picking up many a basket…and the naming of the grape is still a mystery somewhat….Regardless, I could eat a basketful of Catawba grapes, but not Catawba worms..
    That is why so many natives of NC and SC as well as our Indian nation still call the Catawba Tree, by the original Indian name…
    Thanks Tipper, for the space and time, I just know what my Buncombe, Madison county, Haysville and Camden, SC kin taught me at the time…I just hope I don’t have to eat a basket of CROW!

  • Reply
    Suzi Phillips
    September 19, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    Lovely story! We have several and their blossoms smell divine. On the practical side, make sure ya’ll kill the roots. If you don’t, it will come back next year-the trunk will be much bigger & it will cause real problems for your foundation.

  • Reply
    Brenda Kay Ledford
    September 19, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    I enjoyed your fairy tale very much. The Princess Tree indeed is magic. I’ve never heard of one growing here in the mountains. Sounds like Jack in the Bean Stalk. Wow! This is a great posting.

  • Reply
    September 19, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    That was a nice story about your
    uncle Blaine and a big fish in
    the picture. I had no idea what
    that was growing near your window
    in a previous blog. Bet Blaine
    is proud of his neice, lookin’
    down and smilin’…Ken

  • Reply
    September 19, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    just loved the story tipper.. course id really have wished to hear that it was the beanstalk and could imagine the girls climbing to see what magical place was up above. 🙂
    but glad that you got to see the planter of your magic princess tree.
    i love any photos of family.. and the stories behind them. they bring them close to our hearts and when there is a story behind it.. makes it all more special.
    hope all are well in your corner of the world.. sending big ladybug hugs to you and all your blind pig readers….

  • Reply
    Sallie Covolo
    September 19, 2012 at 9:13 am

    I loved this story, Tipper. That is a good looking fish your great Uncle Blaine caught. He would be proud of your ‘Princess Tree’.

  • Reply
    dolores barton
    September 19, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    Perhaps, one of the seed pods blew over with the wind from the field. I have never seen such large leaves. I wonder if the deer like to eat the leaves. I loved your ‘fairy tale,’ and I sent it to my brother who is a horticulturist in Texas. I think he will enjoy the story also. I have a butterfly tree, not bush, that is very invasive and I constantly need to pull out its new trees. The butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees love it. It gets cut back each year.

  • Reply
    Karen Larsen
    September 19, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    Looks like your Uncle Blaine stopped by and planted a princess tree seed so you’d find out about him. Now he’s part of your story….. nice!

  • Reply
    September 19, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    I enjoyed your fairy-tale very much! How wonderful for you and the girls to learn more about your Uncle. I love history and the best kind is family 🙂 The Empress is a truly beautiful tree and it is a shame that it must be destroyed for the sake of your house. I am a huge tree lover and wish I had one of every kind on my property. As a child I use to hug the magnificent sassafras tree that was outside of my bedroom window. Every fall I would anxiously wait for it’s perfect blaze of rainbow colors. It always made me smile and wish that I could keep the leaves forever. Thanks for the memories today too! 🙂

  • Reply
    September 19, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    Mr. Jim is right; catawbas are grapes, catalpas are fishworms except here where I live as there’s a town north of here, Cataula, and the name ‘migrated’ to the tree. Trust me, got a yard full of ’em; they are great shade until the worms come, they can strip every leaf off in about 3 days. Strange thing is that they will pick a tree and strip it clean but ignore a tree right next to it.
    I’ll bet a bucketful of catalpa worm that your uncle is resting his right foot on the bumper of a ’37-’39 Hudson….

  • Reply
    September 19, 2012 at 10:51 am

    I’ve seen these trees here and there in Buncombe County. One or two of them grow on a nearby street. I knew they were not natives of our area, but enjoy them anyway. Your story of a great-uncle planting a tree to attract worms for his fishing delighted me. Reading that his tree sent a seed to you made me smile and smile. Ah, the cycles and circles of our lives.

  • Reply
    September 19, 2012 at 10:47 am

    “Here’s what I think. If it feels it needs to grow that bad, it should be left til frost…”
    I actually thought about this tree as you would read in my previous comments…but hasitated due to the fact that you probably would not have it that close to the house, more likely a pumpkin, squash, or melon of sorts…
    These trees are very noticeable along Interstate when going from Knoxville when you begin to get in the mountains going to Asheville..they seem to be in the gorges where new construction of the Interstate took place, and rocks where down the sides that exposed the river, creeks…I don’t think they would have been planted on purpose..but seem to be holding the land in place. The blooms in April are pretty like lavender thick stick candles standing up on the trees…
    A farmer has a stand on a hillside between here and Sweetwater and I was told he was growing them for the wood for instruments. He has them spaced so he can access them easily.
    Isn’t it amazing how when we are given “Lemons in the mountains we can make Lemonade”…LOL
    For instance, the Osage Orange tree and the “Catawba worm tree”!
    Your story is one to keep and write now…I have always wanted a Princess Tree or Palownia but never got any seed…I do think we had one in some dirt that was delivered for top soil a few years ago…but Roy wouldn’t let me keep it..growing right out of the middle of the pile he was going to use…Shucks…I love willows too…the drooping kind, great uses, and the upright creek kind..used for outdoor funiture…
    You need to save a few pieces of the wood. Let it dry and carve you a fish out of it and call it Uncle Blaine…and put it on your mantle…
    Thanks for a wonderful story…

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    September 19, 2012 at 10:00 am

    Make sure the Deer Hunter paints the stump with brush killer or the tree will sprout several trunks next year. One of these trees came up on my property several years ago and although I cut it I am now in a constant battle with them. They are the tree variety of Kudzu. At Needmore we had several Catalpa trees and Blaine was correct about the catapillars being excellent fish bait. In ancient China the Princess Tree was supposedly a royal tree and anyone other than a member of the royal family who had one growing on their property would be executed. They are a pest, and one growing near a concrete block foundation will burst the blocks. The fish looks like a Muskie which are indiginous to our area and are still caught, the NC Wildlife Resources Commission introduced the Tiger Muskie, a hybrid, several years ago but some original Muskie are still caught in Fontana Lake and the rivers which feed it.

  • Reply
    September 19, 2012 at 10:00 am

    What a suprise! I thought you had some sort of vine growing by your window. I have never heard of a princess tree. We had a catalpa tree growing in our front yard when I was a kid. It attracted those big fat green worms and had long hard bean pods that grew on it. It was my favorite tree in the yard…the limbs were placed just right to climb up and have a seat! I enjoyed the story of your uncle. Its funny how people from our past can reach out and communicate with us.

  • Reply
    Kerry in GA
    September 19, 2012 at 9:26 am

    My Great Aunt Grace had one of these trees in her yard. She always called it a “Jack in the Beanstalk” tree.

  • Reply
    September 19, 2012 at 9:01 am

    It just seem that you have such a green thumb that all the seeds know where to land if they want to thrive. Well, maybe this one will not be so lucky when The Deer Hunter gets that chain saw out. I don’t think I have ever seen a Princess Tree. It sounds pretty but those leaves could make a big mess when they fall.

  • Reply
    September 19, 2012 at 8:48 am

    This is a wonderful story, thanks for sharing. I’ve never seen a Princess Tree, but now I will be keeping an eye out for them!

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    September 19, 2012 at 8:28 am

    Tipper–I was intrigued by the fish your great-uncle Blaine was holding in the picture. It sure looks like a muskie, a species native to WNC waters that are part of the Mississippi River drainage (not all are). Grandpa Joe called them jackfish, and apparently they were once common, then nearly extirpated, and now restored in good fashion. Of course the fish could also be a Northern pike caught on a distant trip. Do you know?
    Still on the fishing theme, it’s actually a catalpa tree, not Catawba, although the latter usage is quite common.
    Finally, another place there are lots of princess trees is in the area from Balsam down to Sylva, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen them more plentiful than in the Nantahala Gorge. The Gorge also has some sweet gums, a nuisance tree which is all too plentiful here in S. C., but you don’t see it too often in the high country.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    September 19, 2012 at 8:25 am

    Plants passed from one generation to the next are just as precious as any other family heirloom! My mom has some tulips and daffodils from grandma’s yard and they are a treasure to me.
    The growth rate of some trees is amazing. I have never heard of princess trees, but around here we have catalpa trees that grow like Jack’s beanstalk.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    September 19, 2012 at 8:05 am

    What a wonderful secret. I think it’s really Tipper’s beanstalk. It just doesn’t look like at tree and it’s far too big to be a house plant.
    Those are beautiful leaves. It seems a shame to cut it down but at the same time it can’t stay there.
    I find it very interesting that this story finished itself. We think we are so smart but there is much more in the unknown than in the known.
    I think that Uncle Blaine wanted to meet his niece, the one who is doing so much to preserve his traditions.

  • Reply
    Ethelene Jones
    September 19, 2012 at 8:04 am

    I didn’t have a notion of what your “fairy tree” would reveal. I had never heard of a “Princess Tree.” I completely missed seeing those trees along Nantahala Valley with the big leaves as I drove from Epworth to Western Carolina University the summers of ‘6a5-68 as I studied for my Master’s degree at WCU. Guess I was too intent on getting home for weekends and the amounts of class work to be done! Anyway, thanks for sharing the story of the Princess Tree and Blaine! Delightful. And I’m sorry you will have to cut down the tree because of its massive size! But do plant a leaf in another place and let us know about it, maybe next year?

  • Reply
    Sue Crane
    September 19, 2012 at 8:04 am

    Ah, thank goodness we are never too old for fairy tales. Great story.

  • Reply
    Mary Shipman
    September 19, 2012 at 7:52 am

    great story! I don’t think I have ever seen one

  • Reply
    grandpa ken
    September 19, 2012 at 7:49 am

    Is that a trout? If that is it’s a very nice one.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    September 19, 2012 at 7:35 am

    I thought I had guessed every green thing under the sun. The leaves do look kinda like rhubarb, don’t they, and I guessed rhubarb, didn’t I? I always called them elephant ears. Don’t know why? Ain’t no horticulturalist!
    Those trees serve a good purpose over in the Gorge. They screen you from flocks of canoes, kayaks, rubber rafts and screaming idiots that clog the river all summer long.
    I have a Norfork Island Pine that the ladies at work gave me in an arrangement when I was in the hospital after a car wreck in 1989. I’ve been taking care of it for all these years. It is up to the ceiling and takes up half the room and is going to have to go soon. It is 4 years older than my son and I hate to part with it. I’ve tried to get someone to adopt it but it’s too big. I couldn’t even get it out of the house now without breaking it. That is a sad end for it but I feel better when I consider that the vast majority end up in the trash in a couple of weeks.
    I sure am a longwinded cuss, ain’t I?

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    September 19, 2012 at 7:01 am

    Plants planted by family members are a piece of them after they are gone. We have a yellow alamanda that has survived in some form since the late 1800;s

  • Reply
    September 19, 2012 at 6:04 am

    When you first mentioned this I just knew that (knowing you) it must be something saturated with nostalgia. I have a plant that my uncle Sonny left at Momma’s years ago that I have kept all these years. It’s not pretty and my wife looks at me strangely at times asking why in the world I want that thing. I know I can’t ever explain it; I guess it’s just because he had it. As long as I have it, I still have part of him.

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