The Princess Tree: Stories of Paulownia

Like all natural materials, wood has a spirit and a story.  From temples made of hinoki to boxwood marriage chests, every special occasion is marked by giving or receiving an object made from a particular kind of wood. Today we look at the stories behind paulownia wood, or kiri, a high-quality wood used throughout Japan. 

Known as the "princess tree," paulownia wood is a high-quality material closely connected to female identity in Japan. It was once customary to plant a Paulownia tree when a baby girl was born, with some wealthy families planting up to three saplings per daughter. The fast-growing tree would mature as the girl did, so that when she reached the age of marriage it could be cut and made into wooden articles for her dowry. On her marriage day, the parents would present her with a chest of paulownia wood carved from her tree, to store kimono and other fine garments. Because kimono needs to be stored in high-quality wood to preserve the delicate silks , paulownia wood became a popular material for marriage chests. 

Though the marriage chest market has all but disappeared, paulownia remains a deeply symbolic natural material to this day. Its branches are depicted in the in the seal of the office of the Prime Minister, and also serve as the emblem of the Japanese government. In objects, paulownia wood is commonly used to make high-quality boxes, chests, and clogs. Its light, fine-grained wood can also be burned to make charcoal for sketching and powder for fireworks.

Beyond its function, every material has a story. With beautiful purple blooms and a smooth, almost soft texture, the paulownia tree is a clear reminder of the beauty that is to be found in the natural world. When we listen to its story, we carry that beauty forth with us.