Yes, Empress Tree Is Fast-Growing—But It Will Take Over Your Yard

One of the fastest growing trees in the world, this pretty but extremely invasive species will quickly take over your entire yard.

At first glance, a Chinese empress tree, also known as foxglove tree, empress tree, or princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa), can seem quite appealing. It has pretty purple flowers in spring and grows rapidly, which has helped it become a popular tree to grow for providing quick shade. Maybe you've even seen this tree advertised as a beautiful, fast-growing wonder for your landscape. That's because the empress tree is, in fact, one of the fastest-growing trees in the world: It can grow up to 20 feet tall in its first year and reaches maturity in just ten years. Unfortunately, all that rampant growth means Chinese empress trees will become your worst garden nightmare.

large empress tree growing in yard

Evgeniya Vlasova / BHG

The Chinese empress tree's gift for growing at lightning speeds (for a tree) is actually a curse. They have become very invasive in the United States. They're even classified as a noxious weed in Connecticut, where sales of this species are banned. Just one tree can take over an entire garden in a few years and choke out other plants by cutting off sunlight and sucking up resources like water and nutrients. After the first year, each one can grow up to 15 feet annually until maturity. This can also be a massive problem if planted near your house, as empress trees produce thick, large roots that can damage foundations and concrete.

And don't make the mistake of planting an empress tree in your yard and thinking you can control it with regular pruning. It can spread through root sprouts and seeds (it produces up to 20 million seeds every year). Even if you're diligent about pruning, all those seeds can easily make their way into neighboring yards or wooded areas.

Once you have an empress tree in your yard, it's extremely difficult to eliminate it totally. The roots are strong and spread just as quickly as the tree grows above ground. If even a tiny portion of the roots break off and remain in the ground when you try to remove this tree, it can start growing again. A large, established tree is almost impossible to remove because its roots can grow outwards up to three times as wide as the tree is tall. You'll have to get every piece of them out of the ground to prevent new sprouts from popping up.

Native to central and western China, the empress tree has been reported in 29 states. However, it's most concentrated in Southern states and East Coast, including Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, New Jersey, and Delaware. It's been spotted spreading in forests and other natural areas from Vermont to Florida on the East Coast and as far west as Texas. Even farther west, a few counties in Washington have also reported sightings.

empress tree blooms close up

Evgeniya Vlasova / BHG

Usually, people are captivated by empress trees' huge, beautiful purple blooms. Still, if you want to add a flowering tree to your yard, there are better-behaved choices that won't become botanical monsters. Plenty of native species will also produce colorful flowers in spring, including serviceberry, flowering dogwood, and redbud. These alternative trees might not grow as quickly, but in the long run, their slower growth means they won't become overly aggressive in the landscape.

So if you come across a Chinese empress tree or its seeds for sale, run the other way. If you already have an empress tree in your yard, do your best to eliminate it while it's still small. Especially once it reaches maturity, this invasive tree will choke out everything else around it. In addition, it will be nearly impossible to stop it from spreading.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the best way to get rid of a Chinese empress tree?

    Empress trees need a few approaches to be removed from your yard. First, cut trees down with a power saw, preventing seed production. After cutting down the tree, use a glyphosate herbicide to kill the roots and any remaining sprouts since the empress tree will regrow from whatever is left behind.

  • How can empress tree wood be used?

    Because it's lightweight and easy to work with, empress tree wood is used for plywood, wood veneer, handmade furniture, custom millwork, guitars, and clogs. It's also used to create small wood carvings.

  • How long can an empress tree live?

    Empress trees have been known to live up to 150 years. However, 40 to 70 years is more common.

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