Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Incidental Beauty: The Chinese Empress Trees Of Gowanus

Walking over the Gowanus Canal at the Union Street Bridge, you may have noticed two big trees, which grow on either side of the canal's edge. Some of their heavy, misshapen limbs hang downward, almost touching the water. For most of the year, they look rather ordinary, but once a year, in spring, they display beautiful large purple flowers.
They have been in full bloom for the last few days now.
Known as Chinese Empress trees, (Paulownia tomentosa ), they are native to Central and Western China, where, it is said, they are commonly planted at a birth of a baby girl and cut down upon her marriage, its wood carved into objects for her dowery.
Here in the United States, they are considered an invasive species and no one purposely planted the two specimen next to the Union Street Bridge.  Rather, their existence is the result of long ago shipping activity on the Gowanus Canal.
You see, in the 1800's, their seed pods found their way to this country in shipping crates. Much like today's polystyrene foam nuggets, they were used as packing material in the transport of porcelain from China. The crates were unloaded from barges in the Gowanus, and the much-sought-after porcelain was sold to Brooklyn residents from Brooklyn Heights to Park Slope and beyond.  Some of this natural 'packing material' took root and spread.
The Chinese Empress is not fussy. It grows quickly in any type of soil and is tolerant of pollution.   No wonder it seems to do well on the shores of the Gowanus.


Anonymous said...

There's also an Empress Tree on Sackett between Nevins and 3rd. So interesting how they got here!

Anonymous said...

I had always wondered what the story was with those amazing trees. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

ugly and invasive, just like the putrid gingko trees on union.