Blue ghostly beauty of the exotic foxglove tree
A foxglove tree in flower looks just too exotic to be grown in this climate. It has large trusses of pale lavender foxglove flowers that open ahead of the leaves.
The shade of pale blue can vary – some trees are deeper in colour, some quite pale. The paler flowers have a slightly ghostly effect against the leafless branches.
It is ahead of itself this year, flowering a bit earlier than usual. The flowers open from rounded buds, covered with rusty brown hairs that protect them all winter from frost. The arrangement of the buds is lively and decorative through winter. Spring frost, and even more so, cold easterly winds can damage the lovely flowers, but mostly they survive well.
The foxglove tree, or Paulownia, is actually related to foxgloves, part of the same family, so the foxglove flower shape is not a coincidence. It is native to China and it thrives in countries that have a sunny, warm summer. Because of last year's good summer here, the trees are carrying a heavy crop of flowers now. In America it is also called 'empress tree'.
The foxglove tree is not that much seen in ordinary gardens because it is not well-known, and it is too big for a small garden as a full-grown tree – reaching six metres high and wide, even more in good soil. In recent years, there has been a trend to grow Paulownia as a pollarded tree, which means it is cut down to almost ground level each year, or two years, in spring. When this is done, the tree produces strong new stems to 1.5m or more with large broad leaves as much as 40cm across.
This foliage certainly looks exotic, powering up in the middle of a border. However, cut back like this, it will not produce flowers.
Of course, it can be grown in both forms. It is quite common for suckers to be produced from the roots, close to, or at a distance of a few metres from, the main stem. These suckers can be detached from the parent when well established, or, if not needed, can be chopped away as small suckers when they appear.
Foxglove tree likes good fertile soil and tends to look scrawny on poor soil. However, overly soft growth can leave it prone to wind damage to the flowers and even to the large leaves in summer. Shelter is essential.
Plant it at any time from a pot.