A tree with a long straight trunk under ideal conditions. Leaf ovate to cordate, pubescent especially beneath. Flowerheads broadly conic, to 1 m long, with comparatively few and long branches; cymes sessile or subsessile; pedicel less than 1 cm long. Calyx lobed to half its length. Corolla white to purple, 55–75 mm long. Seed-capsule 3–4 cm long, with sticky glandular hairs at first; wall less than 3 mm thick, not woody (Hong et al. 1998).
Distribution China Guizhou, Hubei, Hunan, Sichuan, Yunnan Vietnam In mountains
Habitat Mountain forests, 1200–3000 m asl.
USDA Hardiness Zone 7
RHS Hardiness Rating H5
Conservation status Not evaluated (NE)
Paulownia fargesii stands apart from most of its genus thanks to its distribution in the interior forests of south-western China, although as is the case with most Paulownia the original native range has been obscured by widespread planting. Its rather broad inflorescences with nearly stalkless cymes are shared only with the Taiwanese P. kawakamii; recent genetic analyses have suggested this is an example of convergent evolution (Xia, Wen & Gao 2019).
The species’ history of cultivation in the west is sadly confused. Paulownia fargesii was described by the French botanist Adrien René Franchet in 1896 and named in honour of the missionary and botanist Paul Guillaume Farges, but the seeds sent by Farges around this time to Maurice de Vilmorin’s nursery in France produced plants with very different floral characteristics (Bean 1976); their progeny is described in this account under P. tomentosa Lilacina Group. Even today it remains safest to assume that any tree sold as P. fargesii, without good wild collected credentials, really represents the P. tomentosa Lilacina Group.
True Paulownia fargesii may never have been commercially offered in Europe or North America; deriving from forests which are rain-soaked throughout the growing season it has seldom if ever been used in the development of forestry Paulownia clones either, since these plantations tend to be established in areas with relatively dry summers. The species was introduced from China to Kew in 1979 (the same year as P. × taiwaniana) (Clarke 1988), but the original plants are unlikely to have enjoyed these gardens’ light soils and low rainfall and are long gone. A reintroduction to Kew was made in the 1990s from Sichuan (SICH 1789: however, at Howick Hall in Northumberland this collection is labelled P. fortunei and has grown very slowly). Two trees from SICH 1789 survived at Kew in 2022, along with one from the subsequent collection SICH 2019, but the largest from this time (SICH 2019 planted in the Berberis Dell in 2002 and 19 m tall in 2015) reached the end of its life in 2021. In the more congenial conditions of Westwood Valley at Wakehurst Place, Kew’s West Sussex outstation, a specimen of SICH 1789 planted in 1996 was 22 m tall in 2021, and showed the slender, long-trunked habitat described in the wild populations (Tree Register 2022). A larger tree at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, its trunk 57 cm thick in 2022, by which time it had retrenched severely and was approaching the end of its life, grew from seed collected in Honan in 1981 (Tree Register 2022); this province lies slightly north-east of the species’ distribution as indicated by the Flora of China (Hong et al. 1998). At Kew, the flowers of P. fargesii have slightly more frilly and pleated rims than those of other Paulownia, and are an attractive lavender-mauve en masse.
Two seedlings, raised purportedly from the Kew specimens of Paulownia fargesii by the amateur dendrologist Bryan Roebuck, and donated to the author for planting in his local public park, have proved difficult to cultivate out of doors in the rather maritime climate of Hastings, East Sussex, producing weak shoots which die back in winter to an increasingly massive (but soft and very brittle) root; this might be taken to suggest that they have indeed come true from seed but that the species is among the least well adapted for survival in cool, northern climes.