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365 Urban Species. #301: Tulip Poplar

Photos by cottonmanifesto . Location: Olmsted Park.

Urban species #301: Tulip poplar Liriodendron tulipifera

Also called tuliptree and yellow poplar, this tree is thoroughly unrelated to both tulips and poplars. Conflicting yet complimentary explanations exist for the "tulip" part of its name. Its sturdy flowers, held way up in the higher branches, somewhat resemble tulips. Its four-lobed leaf, rather like a maple leaf missing its middle point, looks like the silhouette of a tulip. The tree is, in fact, a member of the magnolia family, occurring relatively farther north than many others. It is native to the eastern part of North America, but its hardiness, beauty, and usefulness as a timber producer, have encouraged plantings in other regions and on other continents. Three states--Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee--have named tulip poplar as their state tree.

Tulip poplar is relatively resistant to caterpillar predation and other urban stresses, and a healthy individual could grow to more than 100 feet tall. They are chosen for plantings in open areas in the city, as they do not tolerate deep shade. Their leaves turn golden yellow in Autumn.

Tulip poplars were valued by Native Americans, who used the naturally insect-repellent bark as a purgative, to treat intestinal worms. They also valued the timber for canoe-making. Europeans quickly recognized the tree's value, and it was introduced to Britain in the 1600's. The tulip tree is one of only two members of its genus, the other occurring in China.

A fairly young and small tulip poplar bursts into autumn color.

The tree's bark is distinctive.

A close-up of the flower, taken in spring.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 30th, 2006 01:38 am (UTC)
I have a love/hate relationship with tulip poplars. I love the flowers and the general loveliness of the trees. I hate all the leaf-raking their gigantic leaves result in every fall (ie, right now).
Oct. 30th, 2006 01:44 am (UTC)
Lovely photo. Here are a pair of mature Liriodendron tulipfera showing the distinct bark texture:

Tulip poplars grow fast and tall! A tulip tree in Michigan is said to have reached 200 ft. but was blown down in 1984. The current tallest tulip in Massachusetts is 133 ft. A tulip in North Carolina was measured at 177 ft. in '03 and was the tallest known in the U.S. at the time it was measured.

There are several tall ones in the little grassy park just to the west of Jamaica Pond next to Hellenic Hill. There is a good sized one in between Ward's and Willow Pond, probably the tallest tree in Olmstead Park. I love the shape of their leaf.
Oct. 30th, 2006 01:51 am (UTC)
Tulip trees (and sycamores!) are the trees I miss most since I moved up north. They're just too darn carolinian. On the other hand, the red pine and black spruce are pleasant enough.
Oct. 30th, 2006 01:56 am (UTC)
I remember being told that settlers in Pennsylvania Dutch country valued the timber of the tuliptree because they grow tall and very straight, so they could be used for the long beams in cabins.
Oct. 30th, 2006 07:16 am (UTC)
The really tall ones seem to fall over in big windstorms more than you might expect. I wonder if they have relatively shallow root systems or something.
Nov. 1st, 2006 10:27 pm (UTC)
I'm surprised to see any uncertainty about the origins of the name. Its large, distinctive, upright, cup-shaped flowers made enough of an impression on me as a child that it was one of the first tree species I learned to recognize.
Oct. 30th, 2007 03:23 am (UTC)
An interesting bit of history from my old tours: during the Revolution the British basically legislated that all tulip poplars in the colonies were personal property of the King, because they were so useful as ships' masts.
Jun. 30th, 2008 10:17 pm (UTC)
Looking for references on tulip trees used as ship masts
Do any of you have any references you could either share or to which you could direct me regarding the statement by buboniclou on Oct 30, 2007, "...during the Revolution the British basically legislated that all tulip poplars in the colonies were personal property of the King, because they were so useful as ships' masts"?

I'm looking for authoritative references regarding the history and uses of the tulip tree. Any help would be appreciated.

Many thanks.
Jul. 1st, 2008 12:50 am (UTC)
Re: Looking for references on tulip trees used as ship masts
I can't say as I remember any particular reference book it came from; it's something the Park Rangers I worked for taught me in training me to do tours. It's entirely possible it's an urban legend, but it does seem like something the British would do.
If you're near a botanical garden, see if they have a library with a history of American trees or some such. I highly recommend the one at the NY Botanical Garden. Alternatively, you may be able to call them and ask one of their librarians to look it up for you. Good luck!
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )


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