Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Paulownia tomentosa

I missed the thousandth anniversary of the world's first novel in 2008. Better late than never, I am making amends by observing the thousand and first. The Tale of Genji, which depicts the cloistered world of the imperial Japanese aristocracy of a millennium ago, is thought to have been written in about 1008. An abiding presence in the novel is the empress tree, Paulownia tomentosa. The delicate lavender hue of the Paulownia flower is the color of romantic attachment throughout the tale. That color is murasaki, the first name of Genji's author, Murasaki Shikibu. Genji's adoptive daughter (and concubine!) is also called Murasaki. Genji's mother, who dies shortly after Genji's birth, is the Lady of the Paulownia Court. Genji carries on a romantic affair with his stepmother, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Lady of the Paulownia Court.

A tree with the aristocratic associations(1) and exquisitely beautiful blooms of Paulownia might be expected to keep only the best company. Sadly, the tree's star has fallen. In Plainfield Paulownias are most likely to be found in the neglected precincts of the railroad tracks, keeping company with disreputable black locusts (http://plainfieldtrees.blogspot.com/2007/05/black-locust-robinia-pseudoacacia.html). You can see the two species commingling in the wooded strip of land that borders the tracks along South Second Street. America doesn't share Japan's enthusiasm for Paulownia. Despite the beauty of its blooms, Paulownia is regarded as a weed in this country.

I'm glad to report that Plainfield has at least a few beautiful and well cared-for Paulownias. One is in the front yard of 1038 Central Avenue, pictured below. I despaired of finding a photogenic Paulownia in town until Hugh Goodspeed directed me to the Central Avenue tree. (If you visit to have a look, don't miss the white oak only yards away, one of the grandest white oaks in the area. It is pictured at the end of this posting.)

Pictured below is another large Paulownia on Leland Avenue in front of Stillman Gardens.

Jo-Ann Bandomer pointed out this tree to me last spring. She sent an email describing it as looking like a tree-form wisteria. A Paulownia in bloom could easily be mistaken for a wisteria. The huge flowers, which appear before the leaves, are of the same general shape and color as wisteria blooms. Once the leaves appear, the resemblance to wisteria is lost. The large, heart-shaped leaves of Paulownias closely resemble the leaves of catalpas (http://plainfieldtrees.blogspot.com/2007/06/catalpa.html).

Paulownia is not often planted in the United States except on tree farms. It's considered messy, prone to splitting, and invasive.(2) We grow the tree on farms to export its wood to Japan. The wood is highly prized in Japan for its light weight, easy workability, and resistance to rot. It is also said to be fire-resistant. Paulownia wood is a traditional material for the fabrication of chests in which to store kimonos. Several sources relate that it was once customary in Japan and China to plant a Paulownia on the birth of a daughter. The tree would grow fast enough to provide wood for a dowry chest at her marriage. The wood is also used for traditional musical instruments and clogs.

The Japanese still value Paulownias for their beauty, not just as sources of wood. The Paulownia tree is honored by depiction of its flower on the seal of the Japanese prime minister. It would be hard to imagine a flower as the symbol of any American government office. What might Dick Cheney's flower have been?

Schooled by samurai movies, Americans think of the Japanese masculine ideal as silent, loyal, duty-bound, fearless, and skilled at swordplay. The Tale of Genji reflects a different pole of Japanese culture. Genji's era preceded the one depicted in samurai films, and the milieu is the court, not the battlefield. The masculine ideal in Genji's world bears little resemblance to the hero of the samurai film. Not hesitant to shed a tear in contemplation of a beautiful view, he seeks to impress the ladies by the skill with which he mixes the colors of his robes and by the cleverness of his poetry. He prides himself on his ability to blend scents for his own personal perfume. He knows nothing of the world outside the hothouse environment of Kyoto and is afraid to leave central Kyoto at night for fear of highwaymen.(3)

I'm on the lookout for another tree to celebrate an anniversary. This year is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns. Does anyone know of a photogenic Scotch pine?

White oak 1038 Central Avenue

(1) Not only Japanese royalty, Russian as well. The tree was given its Latin name Paulownia to honor Russian Princess Anna Pavlovna.
(2) Paulownia has earned a place on the Plant Conservation Alliance's Alien Plant Working Group Least Wanted List. http://www.nps.gov/plants/alien/fact/pato1.htm
(3) The World of the Shining Prince, Ivan Morris, Kodansha International 1994, p. 145.
Copyright Gregory Palermo