The custom of planting a paulownia “princess tree” at the birth of a baby girl



In Japan (especially Kyoto, Nara and Osaka), there remains a custom of sending over a kimono dresser made of paulownia wood with the bride as she settles into her new marital home. This tradition is a relic from olden days when the aristocratic and elite families would plant several paulownia trees at the birth of a girl. The kiri or paulownia tree, also known as the Empress Tree or Princess Tree, is native to western and central China, and the custom of planting the tree, initially reserved for the aristocracy and later for the wealthy, at the birth of a girl spread from there to Korea and Japan:

“Paulownia tomentosa (also known as the Empress Tree, Princess Tree or Foxglove Tree) is a deciduous tree in the genus Paulownia, native to central and western China, but invasive in the US… In China, an old custom is to plant an Empress Tree when a baby girl is born. The fast-growing tree matures when she does. When she is eligible for marriage the tree is cut down and carved into wooden articles for her dowry.
Carving the wood of Paulownia is an art form in Japan and China. In legend, it is said that the Phoenix will only land on the Empress Tree and only when a good ruler is in power. Several Asian string instruments are made from P. tomentosa, including the Japanese koto and Korean gayageum zithers” – Empress Tree

From an article on Mishimachi’s pawlonia craftsmen “In love with paulownia“:

“Paulownia makes a good dowry.

Takeshi Suzuki, chief of the Planning Section at the Mishima-machi Town Hall, recalls: “In Mishima-machi they used to call paulownia ‘gold wood’ because you could pretty much sell the wood from one paulownia tree and buy a new car with the proceeds. When you gave birth to a daughter, you’d plant three paulownia trees, so that they’d be grown by the time she was ready to marry, and you could use them as dowry.” Back in the 1970s, a rich person was someone who owned a lot of paulownia trees. But all good things must come to an end. After imports yanked the rug out from under the paulownia market, the wood from a single paulownia tree was only worth a few hundred thousand yen….

Women all over Japan are in agreement that the best wood for a chest of drawers is the Aizu paulownia of Mishima-machi, because a kimono must be stored in a high-quality chest. The paulownia goods of Mishima-machi are all made of locally grown Aizu paulownia, as are the fine-quality paulownia chests on display at famous national museums all over Japan”

See also the article “Paulownia history” on the uses and significance of the paulownia tree for Japan and China:

“Furniture, made of paulownian wood is not rare in China. On the contrary, it is considered that not even before, but also in the present, there is not a Chinese house without a furniture made of this legendary tree. Ceertainly, many other applications of paulownian wood are known. The famous musical instruments, which have been a true mystery for the Europeans, first stepped in the unexplored China and Japan were only one of them . Even the treasures of the Japanese culture – the magicians of singing and dance – geisha, used paulownia to strengthen their charm. Part of the accessories for each of them was thin, specially treated and dried branch of paulownia, which they used to make their eyebrows up, creating an unattainable mysteriousness of the look.

Certainly, we can not omit the fact, that paulownia is a beautiful tree – with its large velvet smooth leaves and bright purple blossoms, it is worthy decoration of every park or garden. In China and Japan this kind of use dates from centuries and in a sense it is a national tradition.

Emblem of the Prime Minister's Office

Emblem of the Prime Minister’s Office

Actually how paulownia is tied to the history and being of these countries, is understood from the fact, that it is a part even of the official political life. The Japanese, who like aesthetics, as the[ir] symbols have chosen paulownia precisely for an emblem in the prime minister’s office – this is so called “mon“ – a word, used to indicate and underline one’s personal or family identity; its meaning in fact, is close to “coat of arms“ and carrying approximately the same messages. So – the coat of arms in the prime minister’s office in Japan is a stylized picture of paulownia. It is hardly to find more definite manner to express the national importance of paulownia for the Japanese people by its presence on the Order of the Rising Sun. It is the first Japanese order, founded in 1875, which is serviced to persons with credits to the country. We also cannot omit the presence of paulownia on the Japanese currency – on the coins of 500 yen, it is again – the paulownia.

Below: Back of a coin of 500 yen displaying paulownia.


The Order of the Rising Sun with stylized leaf of paulownia. Japanese prime minister’s coat of arm with stylized leaf of paulownia.

An interesting detail of Japanese lifestyle is hanafuda – special playing cards, depicting different plants. At first Hanafuda were used for different complex games, which the noblemen entertained with. Forbidden for the commonalty, the card games, especially gambling went wide in the Japanese people’s life with the opening of Japan to the Western world. Different authors have described these cards and the games played with them have become popular in many countries, including South Korea. Even the cards were called by many different names during different ages and in different countries, there is one thing that remaines unchanged – there is always a picture of paulownia on them. Apropos, it is considered, that even Yakuza (the Japanese mafia) uses them, but this rumor we did not dare to check personally.

Japanese playing cards hanafuda with picture of paulownia on them.”

The custom of planting a tree at the birth of the child was known to have practised in several other cultures as well:

– With the Jewish culture:

“In ancient Israel , a tree was planted when a child was born—a cedar for a boy, a cypress for a girl. As the children grew up, they cared for their own trees” – Tree planting ritual

-Also with ancient Germanic and Mongol cultures:

” … ways of life and death have been associated with particular trees. Tree planting, for example, was considered an investment in life. In Germany, it was customary to plant a tree at a wedding. As each child arrived, an apple tree was planted for every boy and a pear for each girl. The longevity and fruitfulness of the trees were thought to give strength to the marriage and children. Marco Polo said that the Khan had many trees planted because “he who plants a tree will live a long life.” — Cultural aspects of trees: traditions and myths

– And with the Dai culture:
In Dehong of Yunnan, whenever a Dai family gives birth to a new baby, they would plant a lofty fig nearby the village to ask for the sheltering protection of the gods. — Lofty Fig

(In the case of Miao families in China, when a baby is born, the father plants a pine tree or a fir tree, but the wood is not used for dowry purposes but to be made into the funeral coffin. – Miao coffin)

(Images of photos were all from Wikimedia Commons, except the photo of the 500 yen coin which was own work)