The Great Paulownia Mystery

Published 12:02 pm Thursday, May 2, 2024

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When spring arrives in the foothills and mountains, the glades and hollers are ablaze with color. First come the vibrant redbuds, followed by the snow-white dogwood, not to mention the glorious azaleas with their rich hues of pink and red. If one wanted, he could follow the parade of beauty as it unfolded week after week, first in the foothills of the Dark Corner, then trooping across Hogback to Tryon and on up through Henderson to Buncombe County and beyond. And what a journey it would be! This is the story of one of these colorful yet mysterious trees that was discovered quite by accident one spring day in Polk County, North Carolina sometime in the late 1870s.

The story goes that young Giles Pearson was exploring the Pacolet Gorge when he came across a beautiful tree he was totally unfamiliar with. In all his boyhood explorations he had familiarized himself with just about every species of flora and fauna in these parts, but this mysterious tree was a stranger to him. It was tall and erect, but what first attracted the boy’s attention were the clusters of beautiful lavender blossoms that adorned its branches. Attractive bronze seed pods also waved in the breeze. Young Pearson collected a handful of the blossoms and seed pods and took them home to his mother who was somewhat of an expert in local plant life, but even she was stumped. Because the seeds reminded her of coffee beans the Pearsons called the tree a Coffee Tree and left it at that.

Sometime later a botanist from a northeastern university found his way into the hills of Polk County to collect plant specimens from the surrounding mountains. He happened upon the Pearson home, and Giles told the scientist about discovering the Coffee Tree. The man’s curiosity was piqued, and he asked Giles to show him the tree. Giles took him to the spot near the river and the botanist excitedly declared, “That’s a Paulownia!”

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The Paulownia tomentosa is a tree native to the Far East. Commonly found in Japan and China, it was greatly revered by both the Japanese and Chinese people, especially the ancient royal dynasties who tried to keep the lovely trees for themselves. Oddly enough, it was named for the daughter of a Russian Czar; hence, it’s also known as the empress or princess tree. 

These days, the trees are everywhere. They grow fast and furious, up to ten feet a year! And the dispersed seed pods spread the species rapidly. In fact, the North Carolina Forestry Commission has now declared the Paulownia an invasive species.

And yet in 1870 they were a rare commodity, especially in these parts. And that makes Gile’s Pearson’s discovery of the Polk County Paulownia one of the greatest botanical mysteries of western North Carolina. Who planted that tree in the first place? How did it get there? Odds are we’ll never know.