With blades and ropes, they came for her in the night. Neighbors heard only the roar of a motor and the squeal of the getaway, before awakening to find their empress was gone.
It has been several years now since local police have logged reports for any stolen Paulownia trees, also known as the empress or princess trees, but the inconspicuous plant is still widely cherished in the Far East because of its traditional and mystical functions.
Although labeled an invasive species and usually found growing in deserted scrublands, the Paulownia has nonetheless been a much sought-after commodity with wood so precious it is harvested illegally – typically through deception or cover of darkness.
In Japan, it was tradition to plant a Paulownia tree when a baby girl was born and then to make it into a dresser as a wedding present when she gets married. The wood of the Paulownia tree is also said to be coveted by everyone from surfboard makers to guitar artisans.
One might not find the theft of a few trees a particularly heinous crime. Some might even find it rather comical (imagine a pair of hapless crooks trying to chainsaw down a massive tree in the middle of the night and before facing the dauntless task of loading the unwieldy plant onto a pickup truck or even a boat so it can be whisked away for resale on the black market). But the truth is stealing Paulownia trees usually involves illegal trespassing, destruction of property and can scar the landscape and environment.
A few years ago, Havre de Grace Police had to contend with the theft of numerous Paulownia trees near the police firing range, community center and quarry area. The hardy trees seem to thrive in rocky corridors and along the railroad tracks and can be seen along local highways each spring when its telltale purple flowers blossom.
One local police officer remembers that when the city was building the community center on Lagaret Lane someone stole all the Paulownia trees, which had been specifically marked for harvesting and resale to help fund building the center.
From what I have gathered, there are apparently some lumber mills in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania that will buy the Paulownia trees – with virtually no questions asked – but it is said to be tough to get top quality trees. In order to be worth top dollar, the Paulownia must be of proper length, width, tightness of grain and of the right color, which means they must have been grown in well-drained soils that are not contaminated with minerals, where the rate of growth is steady and there is nothing to distort the texture or color of the wood.
One law enforcement officer I asked about the theft of Paulownia trees said he heard that the trees are usually taken to Philadelphia and loaded directly into a container for shipment to the Far East. With no serial numbers on them, the trees are virtually impossible to trace back to their origins.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources was typically the lead agency that investigated the thefts, which were usually perpetrated not by Asians themselves, but by unscrupulous locals looking to make a quick buck by supplying the commodity for the Asian bridal industry.
Here is an example of a news release issued by DNR a decade ago regarding a rash of Paulownia tree thefts in southern and central Maryland.
Rash Of Tree Thefts Prompt Natural Resources Police, Forest Rangers To Issue Warning
Cedarville, MD (June 9, 1998) — Law enforcement officials throughout Southern and Central Maryland are issuing a warning to landowners. A series of the thefts on public and private land indicates that subjects are destroying property, illegally harvesting, then selling a precious wood.
Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) and Maryland State Forest and Park Service Rangers, along with the Howard County Police, are warning landowners to be wary of those wanting to conduct tree removal services on their property for free. At night or through deception, suspects are gaining entrance to property, with or without the owner’s consent, then removing paulownia trees.
Paulownia trees, a non-native species to Maryland, is a highly valued wood. It is used in the Orient for ornate boxes, religious trinkets and medicinal purposes. Currently, the wood is valued at more than $20 per board-foot.
In the most recent case (April 24), two individuals from the Northern Neck region of Virginia went to the residence of an elderly Ft. Washington (Prince George’s County) couple and asked permission to pick-up and utilize dead oak trees. Once on the property, along Allentown Road, a fence was torn down, trees were uprooted, four paulownia trees were removed, sawed into logs and taken. Through investigation, it was discovered that the paulownia logs were sold to the Wheeler Logging Company, located in Orange County, Virginia.
In another recent case, Richard G. Ellis, 29, of Waldorf, and Donald E. Wilson, 29, of Newburg were charged with theft over $300 for their alleged role in the taking of eight to 10 paulownia trees at Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary during the night of March 6. Those paulownia logs were also sold to the Wheeler Logging Company for $3,400.
Police report there have been four active paulownia theft investigations in the last two months. Three of those have been on private property. Investigators believe the cases are part of an organized attempt at targeting paulownias.
At up to $20 per board-foot a decade ago, one has to wonder if there is still a lucrative market for Paulownia wood. Local police say they haven’t had any reported thefts of the empress trees in years, but as long as the centuries-old Asian bridal traditions exist, the princess trees should be in demand.
Maybe there’s even some enterprising arborist out there who had foresight enough to disregard apple and pear trees and instead cultivate his farm with acres and acres of Paulownia – ensuring a few more Japanese families that their daughters could be married under good omen.