There has been lots of hype generated lately about the Royal Empress tree. It's one of those almost too good to be true plants, a fast growing, easy to care for, shade producing hardwood, that has cascades of beautiful flowers. It does have its downside however, so we'll look at both the pros and the cons.
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.
The tree can take a rather severe pruning. In fact, it is sometimes cut back to the ground after its first year which allows it to restart and to grow much straighter. One owner stated that the easiest way to prune a young Royal Empress Tree is to drive the family car or truck over it. It will bounce back just fine. Some care needs to be taken when you first plant the tree. It will not do well, and may not grow at all, if planted in the shade of other trees. You also want to plant it a few feet away from the house, and from sidewalks, and even further away from any septic lines. Keep weeds and grasses away from the trunk for the first year. After that, the tree can fend for itself quite well. It has to be kept moist the first year, and should not be planted during drought conditions, but once established is quite drought tolerant. The Royal Empress is relatively free of pests and diseases, one reason being its rapid rate of growth tends to out pace any problems bugs or disease can cause.