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Winter 2009

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

December 22, 2009

Royal paulownia releases tiny, flaky seeds

Weedy paulownia trees commonly grow in the city's poorest soils. In the winter, they are festooned with velvety golden balls, each orb a bud bearing a tightly packed flower that will erupt as a big purple trumpet in the spring.

Also decorating the skeletal tree is this year's crop of dried seed capsules, rattling in the chilly wind.

Cracks in the capsules let gusts tease out tiny winged seeds, which are swept off into the night.

Also known as princess tree, Paulownia tomentosa is native to East Asia, where some parents plant the tree when a girl is born. When she marries, the tree is harvested and made into a dowry chest.

The wood is highly valued in Japan, but witches' broom disease has sent the trees into decline. Japan now imports paulownia wood from all around the world, including the United States, where the tree is an invasive species, thriving in sunny spots where the ground has been disturbed.

Sources: U.S. Forest Service; Australia Agriculture Dept.

royal paulownia