A tall tree, with a long straight stem in good conditions. Leaf relatively narrowly ovate-cordate and seldom lobed, with stellate or glandular hairs beneath but often glabrous above. Flowerheads slender, c. 25 cm tall, with short branches only; cymes with peduncles as long as the pedicels; pedicel glabrous. Calyx lobed to no more than a third of its length. Corolla white to purple, long (8–12 cm), the lower lip only weakly ridged. Seed-capsule large (6–10 cm long), with a woody wall 3–6 mm thick. (Hong et al. 1998).
Distribution China Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Sichuan, Yunnan, Zhejiang Laos In mountains Vietnam Taiwan
Habitat Mountain forests below 2000 m asl; and as a pioneer species; widely planted north of the natural range.
USDA Hardiness Zone 7
RHS Hardiness Rating H5
Conservation status Not evaluated (NE)
After Paulownia tomentosa, P. fortunei is the most widely distributed member of its genus; it was also the second species to be described by botanists and to be introduced to the west. It is probably the largest and most vigorous Paulownia; an 80-year-old tree in China’s Kweichow Province was reported to be 49.5 m tall with a trunk two metres thick (though the height should perhaps be viewed with scepticism), and an 11-year-old specimen in Guangxi Zhuang was 22 m × 75 cm dbh (Jakubowski 2022). Most modern forestry Paulownia hybrids include P. fortunei in their ancestry.
In gardens, a tall Paulownia with a long straight bole may be this species; the leaves are relatively elongated and elegant and the flowers tend to be a pale, almost silvery mauve en masse. All these features are shared to some extent by some forms of Paulownia tomentosa (especially the Lilacina Group), which cope better in cooler gardens; the big seed-capsules of P. fortunei with their woody walls are distinctive, though not necessarily attractive. In David Ewins’ UK National Collection of Paulownia near Bath this species (in the form of the clone ‘Minfast’) is the first to flower, in late April (D. Ewins pers. comm.); the flowers are less likely to be obscured by the developing leaves, as can happen in the case of P. tomentosa during a late or uncertain spring.
Paulownia fortunei was described (as Campsis fortunei) by Berthold Carl Seemann in 1867; the name honours the plant-hunter Robert Fortune who collected the first specimen, but did not introduce seed to the west. Young plants of unknown origin were at Kew by 1934, when two were passed on to Neil McEacharn’s celebrated garden at the Villa Taranto, Pallanza, Italy (Bean 1976). In the congenial climate of northern Italy these thrived; one at least was still a healthy tree in 2011 (University of Trieste 2022), with a magnificent straight trunk. The generation of trees at Kew described in the eighth edition of Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles (Bean 1976) had been raised from the Taranto trees, but in Britain this species seems to be very short lived and these examples have long gone in their turn. Two handsome Paulownia at Hampton Court Palace in south-west London were labelled as P. fortunei in 2001, when the larger was 17 m × 66 cm dbh (Tree Register 2022); these had both disappeared by 2005. A specimen planted by Lord Devonport in 1987 at Peasmarsh Place in East Sussex was still thriving in 2018, when it was 15 m × 86 cm dbh (Tree Register 2022).
An example collected in Chekiang in 1980 grew at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens until the 1990s (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2022); this is the first evidence of a re-introduction from the wild to the UK at least. More recently, seedlings from NMWJ 14533 have been sold by Crûg Farm Plants (Crûg Farm Plants 2022); Crûg was one of three Plant Finder nurseries offering P. fortunei in the UK and Ireland in 2022 (Royal Horticultural Society 2022), but in a trend mirroring the availability of most of the rarer Paulownia taxa, this total had declined from a high point of eight in 2006 (Royal Horticultural Society 2006). However, a specimen obtained from Burncoose around that time by David Ewins for his UK National Collection of Paulownia appears to be P. tomentosa (D. Ewins pers. comm.).
Paulownia fortunei might be expected to be more conspicuous in the gardens of continental Europe and the south-eastern and south-western United States, where it is likely to perform at its best, but there is little online evidence to confirm this. The species was marketed for its potential as a forestry tree as early as 1992 in California (Hall 2008), when the ‘Sapphire Dragon Corporation’ was established at Santa Paula; from 1995 the Corporation was also active in developing plantations in north-west Mexico.
In warmer climates, this species can be invasive (Jakubowski 2022).
Synonyms / alternative names
Paulownia FAST BLUEPBR
A selection made at the Minier Nurseries in France for its vigour, good form, and lilac-coloured flowers which are carried from an early age (Edwards & Marshall 2019). The specimen in the UK National Collection of Paulownia near Bath was one of the first to be planted in the UK in 2005, and by 2022 it had reached 14 m × 56 cm dbh (Tree Register 2022). There is an excellent specimen at the foot of Battleston Hill at RHS Garden Wisley, and it is grown as an urban tree in southern Sweden with great success (N. Dunnett, Instagram post and pers. comm., September 2022).
The Award of Garden Merit which FAST BLUEPBR received in 2012 has recently helped make this the ‘default’ form of Paulownia fortunei, at least in the UK. In a warming climate it should be remembered that, although FAST BLUEPBR is a clone, it is not infertile in the way that many hybrid forestry Paulownia are; it could potentially become invasive. In the case of a species which is still confined to the gardens and collections of a relatively small number of enthusiasts, it might also be felt of benefit to cultivate as much as possible of the plant’s natural variety; since an Award of Garden Merit will generally only be given to plants with reliable and consistent qualitities, such accolades seem bound to be the foe of biodiversity.
FAST BLUEPBR is occasionally sold or mislabelled as a clone of P. tomentosa.
Synonyms / alternative names
Paulownia BLUE BALLPBR
A sister plant to FAST BLUEPBR, selected at the Minier Nurseries in France for its compact habit. Unlike FAST BLUEPBR, BLUE BALLPBR has never become widely available.
Synonyms / alternative names
Paulownia SUN TZU 33®
A selection made in China for forestry use. It was one of nine Paulownia clones to be trialled at Hillsborough in Northern Ireland (Olave et al. 2015), none of which showed promise in that much chillier climate.
A Chinese forestry selection with good branch structure (Li et al. 2016).