The empress or princess tree is often seen as one of those grim signs of horticultural blight because it grows in and around parking lots all over the urban South. It actually has a pretty aristocratic pedigree since it was named for Anna Paulowna, Princess of the Netherlands (1795-1865). According to Southern Living's Steve Bender who writes of it in the book Passalong Plants, it likely spread south after an introduction to a Hudson Valley nursery just after the Civil War. Paulowina Tomentosa is native to Japan. And, besides the obvious tropical effect of the huge leaves, the empress tree gets looks in the spring with large panicles of purplish-blue flowers. BUT, is it an invasive weed tree? yeah, kinda....is it a prized ornamental and fast growing shade tree? um, yes.
This specimen sits just outside the side entrance to Durham's newly opened Fullsteam Brewery. It looks like it was cut back last winter, which was a good idea because the new vigorous growth looks pretty cool. Treating it like a perennial is smart. You get the large-leaf effect for the summer but without the seeds. This is because only mature trees seem to get enough gumption to actually produce blossoms. And no seeds means no renegade seedlings.