Morte D’Arbor: McMichael Loses a Champion

Say your goodbyes now to our State Champion Paulownia tree — aka the “Princess” tree. How old was she? How did her trunk split? Why can’t she be saved? Some answers in our time of loss. 

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Her giant trunk split overnight September 12th, and by morning a Parks & Rec arborist determined she would not survive. We’ll truly miss this beauty, a favorite photo subject thru the seasons.

McMichael’s was a “champion” Paulownia in Pennsylvania, which means it was the largest specimen in the state.  At any size, though, Paulownia trees are fascinating.

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For starters, what an interesting history! Imported from Asia around 1850, it was hailed as a horticultural gift for being hardy, beautiful, and the fastest-growing hardwood ever found.  By the 1920’s, experts were troubled by its invasive habits and fussy flower buds. Its popularity declined, perhaps hitting a nadir in 2011, when Michael Dirr called the Paulownia a “total loser” in his Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs.

Shut his mouth! We love(d) our beautiful Paulownia — a sight in any season, with her stout trunk and grey-brown bark, rough as an elephant’s skin. And if Paulowania’s such a bum tree, then why are people here always stealing it?

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Seriously — “tree rustlers” have taken a toll on Philadelphia’s Paulownia stock. In 1980, 1983, 1984, 1987, and 199o, poachers felled multiple Paulownias in local parks & made off with the wood, which could fetch thousands per trunk. And delight happy customers in Japan…

When a baby girl is born there, an old custom is to plant a Paulownia tree, which grows to maturity along with the child. When the girl is eligible for marriage, the family cuts down her tree & carves it into wooden furniture for her dowry (usually a chest). They’re also used for coffins.

Japan (and much of Asia) is wildly sentimental about Paulowania wood. So wild, in fact, that over-harvesting led to a massive Paulownia shortage in the 80’s. Prices skyrocketed, making the trees tempting targets for thieves.

Fortunately, the days of lumberjack pirates are over —  Paulownia prices have stabilized with the help of environmental restrictions, and also specialized plantations on other continents. Still, it’s a valuable wood for many reasons:

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Light and strong, with a beautiful grain. Water-resistant, withstands warping. Takes stains & treatments well, and can be air-dried without a kiln. Besides furniture, it’s prized for shipbuilding, surfboards, and aviation. Its excellent natural resonance makes it a great wood for musical instruments.

The trees grow so vigorously, you can harvest for timber in 7 – 10 years. Our giant girl was last measured in 2003 when she was found to be 55 feet tall, with a spread of 84 feet, and a circumference of 215 inches. Lately, she’s been dwarfing 3-story houses nearby.

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Friends of McMichael and Tree Tenders had been watching her closely the last 20 years, a lovely but unfortunate example of unstable tree architecture. As she grew, the “co-dominant stems” of her trunk strained under accumulating weight. If the Friends hadn’t cabled her in 2004, she’d have likely split in two by now already.

Still, it was a gamble, saving a tree of this size & age. A bummer to see her finally give out, but trees have life spans, too. By most estimates, she was probably about a hundred years old — Paulownia rarely live beyond 70 years. Seems this was her time…

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And take heart: she has offspring! A baby rooted about 30 feet away, close to Netherfield Road — quite a tall girl, already (Paulownia trees easily grow 15 feet their first year). Won’t be long before perhaps another champion Princess graces McMichael.

Love your Park Saturday, November 12th!  McMichael seeks volunteers for Fall cleanup — help a little, help a lot: the Friends are grateful for any extra hands for as long as they can have ’em. Email us for details or just show up ready to work from 9 am to 12 pm. 

PS: Remembering…

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