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

By Andrea Beck
August 14, 2020
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At first glance, an empress tree (Paulownia tomentosa) can seem quite appealing. It has pretty purple flowers in spring and it grows rapidly, which has helped it become a popular tree to grow for providing quick shade. Maybe you've even seen this tree being advertised as a beautiful, fast-growing wonder for your landscape. That's because 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 10 years. All that rampant growth means empress trees will turn into your worst garden nightmare.

Empress Tree with blooming pink flowers
Empress tree's large flowers appear in spring before the leaves start to grow.
| Credit: Boonyarit/Getty Images

Also known as princess trees, their gift for growing at lightning speeds (for a tree) is actually a curse. They have become very invasive in the United States, and are 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 around it by cutting off sunlight and sucking up resources like water and nutrients. After the first year, each one can still grow up to 15 feet annually until it reaches maturity. This can also be a huge problem if you have one 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 of 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 completely get rid of it. 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 all over 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, and 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, empress tree has been reported in at least 29 different states, though it’s most concentrated in Southern states and along the 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, though a few counties in Washington have also reported sightings.

Close up of flowers on a Empress Tree with blue sky
Empress tree's purple, trumpet-shape flowers have a sweet, vanilla-like fragrance.
| Credit: williamhc/Getty Images

Usually, people are captivated by empress tree's huge, beautiful purple blooms, but if you want to add a flowering tree to your yard, there are much 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 an 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 get rid of it while it’s still small. Especially once it reaches maturity, this invasive tree will choke out everything else around it and will be nearly impossible to stop it from spreading.

Comments (2)

Anonymous
April 25, 2021
Paulownia Elongota and Fortunei are okay, I have several of these beautiful trees with their huge leaves of 60 cm and it is definitely NOT invasive. Only the Tomentosa is.
Anonymous
March 11, 2021
This is an interesting article with a lot of selective links that display bias and elitism in the gardening world. I came across it after searching for the empress tree. The writing displays the typical anthropocentrism that has led to industrial agriculture, monoculture crops, and selective breeding. The article also shows extreme bias on the types of trees that the writer likes to plant but without all the facts. This peer reviewed article shows that this tree has fossil records dating back to the Pilocene area 2.5 - 5 million years ago. Invasive is a human term made up and only refers to species that were introduced post Columbus era. This article should most certainly be taken down and is an example of fear mongering in the garden world.