Garden Diary - May 2022

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Dragon Tree, White Flowered Paulownia
Paulownia fortunei
Tuesday, 3 May 2022

I drive around town. While I do keep my eye on the road I also glimpse what's in bloom. Flowering quince is now in bloom. So are lilacs. And flowering apple trees. Every now and then there's something new and different. Like this.

It's on Rte 519 cater-corner across from the Baptisttown Post Office close to Rte 12.

I've been seeing it for years as I swoop by but cannot recall previously seeing it in flower.

What could it be?

Sort of like a catalpa but not a match. Catalpas are in flower in June
when very nicely, leafy green. This unknown is in bloom in early May
and its leaves are not yet out. And the tree is quite different, smaller.

I thought maybe chitalpa, × Chitalpa tashkentensis, a funky hybrid of catalpa, Catalpa bignonioides and desert willow, Chilopsis linearis created by A. Rusanov of the Botanic Garden of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences in Uzbekistan in 1964. But the flowers are, again, somewhat different, and chitalpa has linear leaves closer to those of its desert willow parent.

When all else fails, ask the experts. So I queried my friend Joan, and another friend, Ridge.
I shared images from October 2017 of foliage, tree bark, and an open seed capsule.

And with their help and some further research on my part we found an answer.

Joan said: "Your mystery tree just doesn't want to completely fit any tree description we can come up with - but I'm not giving up yet. Seeing your photo of the seed capsule - even the shape (though not color!) of the flowers, I want to say Paulownia - but they have purple flowers, not white like this man's tree - although I do seem to detect a tinge of lavender in your photo of the flowers?"

"The seed capsules match, flower buds match, the flower shape matches, bloom time matches (April/May & before leaves appear), bark appears to match, best as I can tell, the veining of the leaves matches though the leaves in your photo seem a bit shiny - Paulownia leaves are pubescent . . . And the fact you mentioned the tree has had die back - Paulownias are not extremely long lived & subject to some disease problems."

And Ridge said: "The seed certainly looks like Paulownia and I would think unique to Paulownia, and the bark too looks just like that on my tree (I just went out and checked)
For your further information, the Paulownia has been used throughout the coal mining regions of this country to stabilize soils in strip-mined areas as they readily take root and are not particular to soil quality. The problem with this is the seed from the now mature trees floats down the streams and rivers so we now have a rash of seedlings erupting on riparian floodplains far away from the coal mining regions."

I have seen wild paulownia along the highway, when going to / from the New York Botanical Garden. It's very noticeable at this time of year as the upright flower trusses on the bare branches are a vivid purple. Here's a link to Wikipedia's entry for paulownia.

Well and good. Those trees are P. tomentosa which, as Joan points out, has pubescent / tomentose leaves and purple flowers. But with an Aha! moment I read the description of dragon tree, P. fortunei which ticks all the boxes - flower and foliage different from the empress tree.

Now to tell the homeowner the name of his tree, as he had no idea. And since paulownia are very quick growing, perhaps I'll collect some seed this fall and see about growing a dragon tree of my own.

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