Photo by Mary Henry: In the early 1800s, the empress tree, like this one seen here in Madison Park, was introduced to American horticulture.
Photo by Mary Henry: In the early 1800s, the empress tree, like this one seen here in Madison Park, was introduced to American horticulture.

Nature can be a merry prankster, a purveyor fo whimsy, a master of serendipity.

It’s the acorn the squirrel buried in the far corner of your garden, which you didn’t bother to pull out and is now your favorite shade tree. It’s the feverfew, verbena or verbascum the wind, or perhaps a bird, seeded in your perennial border, filling in with lacy foliage and sprays of blossom or that shot up to become a visual anchor to the bed. Couple these gifts with a bit of gardening skill (pruning, grooming, fertilizing), and you’re likely to have something that not even the most accomplished plants person could design.

There are examples of this phenomenon in Madison Park. Strolling though our village your eye might be caught by a wonderful tropical looking plant at the southeast corner of HomeStreet Bank at 4036 E. Madison St.

You’re looking at the juvenile deciduous foliage of Paulowinia tomentosa, the empress tree.

Several years ago a seed from a mature flowering tree was dropped between the foundation of the building and the parking pavement. It germinated, sprouted and up it came with the vigor characteristic of this genus. For whatever reason (I like to think it was intentional) the maintenance staff or the management left it in place.

When autumn came and it defoliated, it was cut to the ground, only to leave the roots in place so that this robust plant could shoot up and leaf out the following ye … as it has done for several growing seasons since.

Herein lies the whimsy, the serendipity. Wittingly or unwittingly, the technique employed here was that of coppicing. This is the practice of cutting a plant, almost to the ground, annually or perhaps every other or every three years, so that an abundant crop of new shoots springs up from the roots. The system predates written history. Willows, lindens, beeches, birches and others were among the many trees coppiced for new, flexible shoots. The newest and smallest in diameter were used in basketry. The 2- or 3-year-old shoots might be used to fashion spokes for wheels or make fencing. The uses for these long, straight switches were innumerable.

In 1544 , Henry VIII regulated the practice of coppicing with a statute, requiring woods to be enclosed after cutting (to prevent animals from “browsing”). The edict also stated that 12 trees, per acre, should be left uncut to be grown into timber. In the 16th and 17th centuries coppiced branches were produced to make charcoal used in iron production. By the 19th century, coppicing was used for hedge management and for ornamental gardens, red and yellow-twig dogwood being prime examples.

Enter the empress tree. Since its introduction into British horticulture, it has been grown for its magnificent blooms: fragrant, upright clusters of 2-inch, trumpet-shaped flowers in lilac blue. It’s a real spectacle in flower. It should be noted here that the seed pods that form are also quite handsome and prized for use in dried arrangements.

At some point, a Paulowinia was cut to the ground. The following spring, up shot canes of growth carrying gigantic, tropical-looking juvenile leaves, many of which measured 2 feet across. Suddenly English borders and island beds were punctuated with these dramatic shows of seasonal foliage, while other plants were left to mature into trees and bloom.

In the early 1800s, the tree was introduced to American horticulture. At that point, Eastern estate gardens were growing plants for blooming trees as well as coppiced foliage. Then it moved to the Northwest.

There is a mature, liberally flowering tree growing on the south side of the Madison Park Tennis Club, near the foot of the outside public stairs going down the slope toward the lake. I strongly suspect that this is the source of the seed that sired the HomeStreet Bank plant. There also is a coppiced Paulownia growing atop a stone wall on the west side of McGilvra Boulevard in the 1000 block, where the sidewalk meets the outside stairs going down. I also suspect this to be a volunteer, likely parented by the tree south of the tennis club.

The unintentional planting and, I assume, the accidental coppicing of the Paulownia at HomeStreet Bank has left our little community with yet one more example of nature’s beauty. Imagine how barren that section of Madison Park’s business district would look without it. In addition to its vast decorative value, it represents human appreciation of nature and a willingness to cultivate it. Bravo!

Any gardener wishing to grow an empress tree, to allow it to mature into a flowering festival or to coppice for its dramatic juvenile foliage, will have no trouble finding a plant in most nurseries or online. The species loves our loose, rich, acid soil. It will reach 40 to 50 feet in height and carries masses of blossom. It is perfectly happy in our mild climate and will grow with Jack-in-the-beanstalk zeal.

The wood is soft and light, but, as it dries upon cutting and milling, the wood hardens. It is used in the construction of Tansu chests and other traditional Asian furniture. It is said that in parts of China, Japan and Korea, a Paulownia tree is planted at the birth of a baby girl. Thus, the father can harvest the tree as she prepares to marry and make a chest for her to take to her new home.

So, should you be in the mood for a little whimsy, or feel prankish, or in need of just some old-fashioned garden theater (or even be planning the future of a new daughter), go to the empress.

She will graciously and effortlessly grant your wish.