Dear Readers, this exotic tree is really not the kind of thing that you expect to see in suburban East Finchley, so when I saw one on Sunday I was stopped in my tracks. The flowers are all the more special because they are not reliable – the buds set in late summer and then have to survive the winter, and as the tree is native to central and western China this is cannot be taken for granted. And then, sometimes the tree takes a break instead of flowering, and who can blame it? Paul Wood, in his book ‘Street Trees of London’, describes it as one of the few blue-flowered trees that will grow in London, and for that alone it’s very special.
The foxglove tree is, in spite of its eerie exotic beauty, something of a pioneer plant, in the same way as a willow or a birch tree can be – it has huge leaves (up to two feet across) that capture light efficiently and which also absorb pollutants, making it a good choice as a street tree. It grows so quickly (up to seven feet in a year) because it is racing for the light – once overshadowed, it will wane and die. This is a relatively short-lived tree for this reason (Paul Wood estimates up to thirty years).
It’s clear that the name ‘Foxglove tree’ relates to the shape of the tree’s flowers, but it’s also known as the Empress tree, because in China only an empress was allowed to have one on her grave. It’s also called the Princess tree – it was the custom in Japan to plant the tree on the birth of a daughter, and the tree would be cut down when she married. The wood was turned into a tansu dresser, which is used to store clothes such as kimono.
A traditional tansu chest, used to store and transport clothes (Photo by By Heineken, Ty & Kiyoko – Tansu: Traditional Japanese Cabinetry, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31536843)Foxglove tree wood is very light and strong, and is used in the construction of the Japanese stringed musical instrument the koto. This is the national instrument of the country, and was traditionally played only by blind men, although subsequently different forms evolved that could be played by everyone. Every part of the instrument is full of traditional and cultural significance. It’s a very beautiful object, and if you want to hear how it sounds, have a listen here.
And while we’re on the subject of beautiful things made of Paulownia wood, how about this tiered writing box, apparently used in poetry competitions? Each compartment holds an ink stone and ink stick, so I imagine that these were given out to the participants. It sold for £687.50 at auction at Bonhams, and dates back to the mid 19th century. I have a great fondness for these intricate objects.
In North America the tree is not quite so welcome – it reproduces happily from seed, is extremely fast-growing, and, beautiful as it is, has become something of a pest in the eastern states of the US. The reason for this is partly because it was planted as an ornamental, but also for a more interesting reason. The seeds of the foxglove tree were used as a lightweight packing material for porcelain during the 19th century, before the advent of those irritating little polystyrene noodles that are used these days. As porcelain was exported all over the world, and was often transported by train, some of the seeds found their way out of the packing crates and onto the railway sidings and, being hardy little things, they rapidly germinated and started their march across the country, much as buddleia and Oxford ragwort have done in the UK.
And finally, a tiny but evocative poem. It was written in 1992 by the Empress of Japan, as part of an annual year-end presentation of poetry.
Unaware that the nation
Would soon face defeat,
I, a child evacuee,
Was absorbed, gathering
Bell-shaped paulownia flowers.
In view of the Japanese tradition, maybe King Charles should be encouraged to write something every year for the edification of the populace. Let’s just hope that his fountain pen works properly when he tries to knock one up. I think maybe an annual limerick would be more in keeping with the British tradition of knockabout humour, but I’m not holding my breath.
Thank you for returning to a tree I had not heard of before. The shape of the flowers definitely remind one of foxgloves. The jacaranda flowers have a similar shape and are also a mauve colour. I love the idea of using natural materials (a pity about the consequences) instead of polystyrene – have often wondered why companies have not reverted to either straw or newspaper for packing, given the plastics crisis we live in.
All interesting but I went off sideways halfway through to listen to the koto, an instrument new to me. The last piece she played was very lyrical and lovely but the whole performance was fascinating.
It’s wonderful isn’t it!