MANCHESTER -- Ed Holt spends hours in light planes and helicopters and driving along back roads, searching wooded areas all over the eastern United States for the elusive wild royal paulownia.
In the spring, he looks for the huge elephant-ear leaves of new growth, then the purple flowers and the seed pods that dangle like bunches of grapes from the ends of the branches. Then come negotiations with landowners for the right to harvest the trees, which can grow in clumps or even single specimens.
All this for an overgrown weed with a single market in the world -- Japan.
But then an average log is worth about $100 and a fine specimen can fetch up to $2,000, according to Mr. Holt, who operates the only mill in the country that cuts paulownia lumber, in the northeastern Carroll County town of Manchester.
Paulownia trees are native to China and are rare in Japan, where the versatile wood is highly prized for many uses -- but mainly to make kotos, 13-stringed musical instruments, and intricate gift boxes that are used but once.
Named for a Russian princess, Anna Pavlovna, daughter of Czar Paul I, who reigned from 1796 to1801, paulownia is also called the princess tree and the empress tree.
China cultivates huge paulownia plantations but the grain quality is inferior to that of the wild American variety, which produces the extremely fine-grained blond wood that so delights the Japanese, Mr. Holt said.
Rot-resistant and not prone to cracking, the wood is ideal for craftsmen, who use it for veneers, moldings, frames, rice pots and even coffins. Chests of drawers called tansu, made either from solid paulownia or from Philippine mahogany veneered with paulownia, are another popular Japanese use for the wood.
A 1985 environmental education sheet produced by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which experiments with paulownia plantations, said it "is probably the most valuable wood-product tree in the United States today" and suggests that eventually it may have some uses in the United States.
Paulownia apparently arrived in the eastern United States about 200 years ago, when seed pods used as packing in chests of Chinese export porcelain and other artifacts dropped off in port cities, along roadways and even waterways.
The tree propagated extensively in the wild. It is also used frequently as an ornamental planting. However, no serious use for the wood has been found in this country because it is light and too weak for any substantial construction. The wood is considered midway between poplar and balsa.
The trees grow tall, sometimes adding 10 feet a year, and live well over 100 years. Even though they produce fine white lumber, Mr. Holt said, they are still just big weeds.
The oldest tree he ever cut was 130 years, near Tarrytown, N.Y., while the average is about 30, he said. New growth generates from the stumps, he said, and each spring all but the strongest growth should be pruned to produce the best new trees.
Paulownia was treated like aweed in the United States until about 18 years ago, when visiting Japanese accidentally discovered it growing wild in the East. That find created a whole new U.S. export to Japan.
Japanese lumber executives approached Mr. Holt, who operates a lumber export firm in Bridgeton, N.J., and shipping paulownia became a major occupation.
"We do our best for the balance of payments," joked Mr. Holt, who said his company ships 70 percent of theU.S. paulownia logs and lumber sent to Japan.
About 18 months ago, in partnership with the Ihara Co., a Tokyo lumber company, he bought a small sawmill, now known as Princess Milling Co., in a rural area outside Manchester. The mill was owned by Suntory, Japan's largest whiskey distiller, which used it to cut white-oak barrel staves for aging casks.
Special band saws and circular saws designed strictly to mill paulownia were imported from Japan for the six-employee mill. The wood is all quarter-sawed to produce the most showy grain.
Piles of logs marked with various numbers and symbols are stacked around the property drying in the air, awaiting selection for shipment as logs or cut lumber.
"The Japanese want it perfect or not at all," Mr. Holt said, so each log is examined like a rough diamond to determine whether it is good enough to be shipped as a log or whether it must be cut into pre-determined board sizes to retain the usable part.
Paulownia is field-cultivated in many parts of the world, including the United States, but forest-grown trees produce the best wood, with close straight grain, Mr. Holt said.
"The wild trees are competingwith the other trees for the sunlight and moisture and they grow stronger and straighter and have finer grain," he said.
Any discoloration -- visible in the growth rings -- is reason for rejection, he said. Once the lumber is cut, the pieces are soaked in water tanks to remove the resins and then are air-dried.
It costs $8,000 to ship a 40-foot container, including import duties and required fumigation -- but not counting the contents -- so Mr. Holt said he cannot afford to export wood that would only be scrapped on arrival in Japan.
Although paulownia grows through much of the mid-Atlantic area, the Baltimore region has ideal conditions for it, Mr. Holt said. This was confirmed by John Jastrzembski, state forester for Southern Maryland, who said the state tells landowners interested in logging revenue to include some paulownia because of the fine growing conditions.
Mr. Holt said he has log-collection yards in Delaware, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. Virginia and Kentucky are prolific producers, he said, because reclaimed mining areas were reseeded with paulownia.
"All the loggers know us and call us when they find trees," he said.