Very large, simple, heart-shaped, large leaf – 5-12” long. Typically quite velvety to the touch. Green above and paler below. Large, showy, upright clusters of purple flowers late spring to early summer. Very fragrant fruit 1 to 1 ½ inches long filled with (1,000s) of small seeds that are initially sticky and green, later turning brown and dry.
The Royal Empress tree originated in China and was bought to the United States about 160 years ago, and has since become an invasive tree in many parts of the country. It grows in most any type of soil, and has an uncanny ability to survive fire, drought, logging, and even bulldozing. It is best known in our eastern and southeaster states, but grows form coast to coast, though not in the northern plains states or parts of the upper Midwest. The tree is deciduous and has extremely large leaves, large enough to easily be associated with a tropical plant. In the spring it is lush with large bell-shaped blossoms, closely resembling the foxglove. The tree is not toxic however, in fact in some areas its leaves are harvested as fodder for farm animals.
There are so many wondrous tales told about the tree that you would think everyone would want to have one. They are very fast growing. You can't sit back and watch it grow, but almost. Its daily growth is measurable however. A fully mature tree will be between 30 and 70 feet high, and perhaps 30 feet wide. With leaves that can measure a foot across, the Royal Empress Tree is a first class shade tree.
Think Before You Plant - You do have to be a little careful where you plant the tree, and give it a little special attention the first year, although it's not a particularly fussy grower. While advertised as being deer-resistant, deer do not always read the advertisements, especially if other food supplies are lacking. Once the tree has reached a height of about 6 feet, deer will no longer be a problem, and as it gets larger, nothing much else will be a problem to it either, as it soon becomes the proverbial 1,000 pound gorilla in your yard.
CULTURE: Best in full sun. Grows well in wet, deep, well-drained soil. Drought tolerant. Aggressive ornamental tree that grows rapidly in disturbed natural areas, including forest, stream banks, and steep rocky slopes.
USES: Highly-prized lumber, shade tree, open spaces, specimen tree.
PROBLEMS: Aggressive and considered weedy. Bark is easily damaged, mildew, leaf spot and twig canker.