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Paulownia is a fast-growing exotic tree now widely naturalized in the lower elevations of West Virginia. Paulownia is also called ‘‘empress tree’’ or ‘‘princess tree’’ because its name honors a Russian-Dutch princess. The tree, native to China, has tiny, light seeds that served as packing material in the days before plastic foam. Seeds escaping from opened crates helped establish paulownia along rivers and railroads.

Paulownia has huge, velvety, heart-shaped leaves and distinctive, blue-purple flowers. Sprouts from stumps grow with astonishing speed, sometimes over 20 feet in a year. Premium logs of forest-grown paulownia sold for $10 per board foot in 1996, the highest price paid for any wood grown in West Virginia. The strong, very light wood seasons quickly with a minimum of distortion or cracking. Buyers ship most logs to Japan, where craftsmen fashion paulownia wood into stringed instruments, furniture, bowls, and decorative items.

Written by Jon Weems