The World’s Most Valuable Tree

Paulownia tomentosa; Royal Empress Tree (Image from seed advertisement)

An African Black Ebony tree from Gabon could be worth a million dollars, if you can find one. Due to its high value many species of Black Ebony are now extinct or on the verge of extinction.

The Paulownia may currently be the world’s most valuable sustainably harvested hardwood tree. A single 12-foot log can easily bring three thousand dollars.

Paulownia lumber is resistant to fire, with a combustion point nearly twice that of other lumber. It weighs half the weight of most hardwoods. It dries in days without a kiln, and it doesn’t warp, crack or split. The flowers produce a desirable honey, as sought after as Acacia honey. For centuries it has been used in Japan for making musical instruments, fine cabinetry, and most notably, fabulously expensive bridal chests. And it grows like a weed.

Moreover, Paulownia serves as a lovely street tree.

In the 19th century Paulownia seed pods were used as packing material, like styrofoam peanuts. A Chinese cargo ship arrived in Florida in 1855 and within a few decades the Paulownia had naturalized across the southeastern USA. A century later, in the 1970s, the value of the wood was realized and within a few decades the wood was harvested and exported to Japan. By the 1990s the southern forests were virtually devoid of high-grade Paulownia.

Two Paulownia in Walla Walla, Google Street View October 2019

Whitman College has three Paulownia on campus. A venturesome soul planted one at Rooks Park. Walla Walla had two Paulownia, the only two we’ve found in the city (with rumors of a third), standing proudly in front of an empty lot. Then the owner, or would-be developer, laid a sidewalk, cut down the trees and left the stumps in place.

This bizarre removal happened nearly a year ago (in spring 2020). The sidewalk, the stumps, and the empty lot stand as a mute testimonial to thoughtless development.

Note 1:

So many people have read this post in the year since it was published that we feel we must warn readers: there is virtually no market for plantation grown American paulownia wood.

American plantation grown paulownia is generally not of high enough quality to satisfy the main overseas markets.

Note 2:

Additional candidates for the world’s most valuable tree have come to our attention, among them:

Sandalwood (Santalum sp.)

African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon)

Agarwood (Aquilaria sp.)

Bocote (Cordia sp.)

Pink Ivory (Berchemia zeyheri)