The empress tree originated from central and western China, where historical records indicate that it was highly prized for its medicinal, ornamental, and timber uses. The wood of the tree is valuable to carvers, particularly in Japan and China where its wood has been incorporated into many artistic carvings as well as musical instruments (such as the koto).
Carl Peter Thunberg, a student of Carl Linnaeus, traveled with Dutch East India Company in 1775 to Japan where he stayed in the Dutch trading post located on the island of Dejima. Nearly a decade later, he described his encounter with the flora and fauna of Japan in “Flora Japonica”, including paulownia.
Although the West first discoverd the tree through the writings of Thunberg, the seeds of the tree were not introduced to the West until 1834 when Henri Francois Neumann planted it in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Seven years later, the 20-foot tree flowered and its seeds were planted to raise over 20,000 seedlings. It did not take long for the empress tree to spread to the remainder of the west.
The genus was named Paulownia by the German botanist Philip Franz Siebold, who also worked for the Dutch East India Company. It was named after Princess Anna Pavlovna of Russia, who married into the Dutch royal family.
Interestingly, the small feather seeds were used as a packaging material by Chinese porcelain merchants in the 19th century. Because the shipping containers would frequently leak during transit, the seeds of paulownia were rapidly distributed along rail tracks and other routes of transport.