Does the current economic downturn have you singing the blues? Then do I have the tree for you! Not only does it have pretty blue flowers, but it also grows faster than Barney Frank’s datebook, and its wood is so valuable people that steal huge trees in the dead of night! So if you’re tired of slumming it in a 7,000 square-foot house — too embarrassed to have people over — plant a farm of empress trees and you’ll soon be hot-tubbing with T. Boone Pickens!
Many years ago, I had this very same idea as an unemployed college graduate, at a time when the economy looked just as promising as today’s. I was a history major, and while the vast majority of intelligent Americans were frantic to hear me recount the thrilling epic of the Taft-Harding Pimento Cheese Act, they just wouldn’t pay me for it. It was then, while reading the back page of that world renowned scholarly journal, Parade magazine, that I discovered the “miracle tree” that would bring me riches of Solomon.
Unfortunately, Parade totally missed the point. They extolled empress tree as a miracle shade tree that would grow 10 feet a year and flaunt giant, exotic leaves. You could almost see it grow, provided you have a really, really slow afternoon (like recent history grads often do). But they said nothing about how stinking rich you could become if you cut it down and sold its valuable wood.
Named for Anna Pavlovna, daughter of Czar Paul I, empress tree (Paulownia tomentosa) is native to China, where its wood has been used for more than 1000 years for making furniture, musicals instruments, carvings, pots, bowls, and spoons. The Japanese prize it highly for making sandals (click to see some nice ones). The reasons are that the wood is blond in color, very easy to work, nearly as light as balsa but twice as strong, has a silky feel, and resists insects and decay. Nice trees with straight trunks can fetch thousands of dollars, which is why they’re subject to rustling. Many landowners with empress trees on their property have gone to bed with good will towards all, only to discover stumps in the morning and then in fits of rage go off to join a mercenary army.
I didn’t have what it takes to be a rustler (a chainsaw and a pickup truck), but I did have a friend with some spare land. So I ordered 24 seedlings from a very disreputable mail-order nursery in Illinois (I won’t mention the name. Let’s just say it rhymes with “rowan.”) They were seedlings all right — tiny peat peat pots holding 3-day old seedlings that still had only their seed leaves. Most were already dead. When I complained, “Rowan” nursery suggested I give them a year to recover from transplanting shock. I replied that I would give them 30 days to refund my money or I would prosecute them for mail-fraud. They finally relented.
So there went my shot at becoming American royalty. I never did achieve my dream. But others have. A typical empress tree farm looks like this.
Empress trees are incredibly easy to grow. Of course, if you’re going to grow them for money, like this, you’ll want to give them fertile, well-drained and conscientious pruning. But like catalpa, mulberry, and tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima), it belongs to the garbage can class of trees. Not only does it seed all over creation, but it will grow in absolutely terrible soil where few other trees will. You’ll often see it growing on old mining sites, next to railroad tracks, or out of cracks in the pavement or on rocky cliffs. The trees at the top of the page are growing on buried busted-up concrete rubble. If you cut empress tree to the ground in spring, it absolutely will grow 10 feet in a year and sprout gigantic leaves. Lack of cold-hardiness is one limitation, though. Flower buds are usually killed north of the Upper South (Zone 6).
If you, like me, dream of being stinking rich and smoking Cubans in the hot-tub with T. Boone Pickens (wearing a suit), I actually have a good mail-order source for you: Forest Farm. Hey, if you’re graduating this spring with a history degree, what have you got to lose?