The tulip poplar, also known as the yellow poplar or tuliptree, is a deciduous member of the magnolia family. Three states, Indiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky claim it as their state tree. It is one of the most frequent tree species of the eastern United States forests and is hardy in Zones 4 to 9.
When Amiable Spouse and I first set up housekeeping, we planted a tulip poplar in the backyard. We wanted a tree to provide shade during the hot summer months. Today the tree is approaching the height of the hundred-year-old longleaf pines that dot our property.
Twenty years later, and with 20-20 hindsight vision, it is hard to determine whether or not we made a good choice. The tree provides the shade we wanted, but it has some drawbacks. First of all, I believe it outgrew all my expectations.
During the first ten years, it grew into the size tree I wanted. Now it continues to grow, and its tall, thick canopy stretches skyward to catch the breezes. The concern is that it will also catch the fierce hurricane winds that sometimes sweep through our area and cause no end of regret, misery, and expense.
Hindsight reveals that we most likely selected a tree that grows too large for our residential lot. The tulip poplar usually attains a height of 70 to 90 feet, but it can grow to 150 feet tall or taller. The record tulip poplar is 191.1 feet tall. The species is one of the tallest hardwood trees of the eastern North American forests.
One summer the garden club had a plant sale in my backyard. I dutifully made temporary shelving for the plants under the spreading branches of the tulip poplar. Imagine my surprise when I noticed a sticky residue on all the garden club's plants. Aphids were at work in the canopy, and their honeydew was dripping from the tree. Needless to say, I had to find another place to keep the plants until sale time. One can stand underneath the tree in spring when the leaves first flush out and feel a mist from the honeydew as it falls to the ground.
In fall the backyard is filled with bucket loads of yellow leaves. This has not really been a problem because the leaves are easily picked up with the lawn mower. Since they are soft, the mower mulches them well. We simply empty the vacuumed leaves into surrounding beds where they make excellent mulch that breaks down quickly and mixes with pine needles that fall from the longleaf pines and leaves from large live oaks nearby.
In spring tuliplike yellow-green flowers with an orange flare at the base are produced. Six petals surrounded by three green sepals make the showy part of the flower, but most people never notice them because they are borne high in the canopy. Amiable Spouse and I are able to see the flowers on the ground after the squirrels cut them from the trees. I collect the fallen flowers and float them in bowls. Placed on the bar and coffee table, we can enjoy them for several days.
The common name, tulip poplar, aptly describes the most easily observable characteristics of the tree. Flowers superficially resemble tulips, and the simple leaves placed alternately on the branches echo the outline of a tulip. During the summer, leaves make a rattling sound as the hot breezes stir them. Most often Amiable Spouse and I gaze upward to see their pale undersides, but when viewed from across the street, the dark green, lustrous upper surfaces are prominent. Each year some of the small sticks and branches fall from the tree, so we have to pick them up frequently.
The fine-grained, stable wood of the tulip poplar is frequently used for cabinet and furniture framing as well as for veneer and pulpwood. Much inexpensive furniture simply referred to as "hardwood" is mostly stained tulip poplar.
Only two species of Liriodendron are mentioned; Liriodendron tulipifera of eastern Noth America and L. chinense of China. Some hybrids of the two species are available (Liriodendron 'Chapel Hill' and 'Doc DeForce's Delight'). Several cultivars are mentioned by various references. Among them are: 'Ardis' or 'Compactum', a small compact cultivar not frequently found in the trade; 'Aureo-marginatum' with yellow-margined variegated leaves; 'Fastigiatum' having an erect, columnar habit; 'Glen Gold' bearing yellow-gold colored leaves; 'Tortuosum' or 'Contortum' with undulated, tortuous leaves; and 'Mediopictum' sporting variegated golden-centered leaves.
Amiable Spouse and I sit on the screened-in back porch most summer evenings to read our books and enjoy "tea party" without the nuisance of mosquitoes. Our books often go unread because we become enthralled in the "goings-on" in the canopy of the tulip poplar. Easter tiger swallowtail butterflies flutter around as they lay eggs on the leaves which serve as hosts for the caterpillars, and squirrels scurry about in fall and winter eating the cone-shaped fruit clusters. Squirrels run up and down the trunk across a branch "highway" as they travel from tree to tree, never having to touch the ground unless they wish to.
For now, I'm glad the tulip poplar is the a part of our backyard. Its advantages, so far, outweigh the disadvantages. We'll continue to enjoy these advantages and keep our fingers crossed that a future high-wind event does not cause us to regret our choice. Oh, well, c'est la vie. It is what it is.
Picture credits: Liriodendron 'Fastigiata' by Growin'; L. 'Mediopictum' by Bootandall. Thanks, guys!
About Marie Harrison
Serving as a board member for Valparaiso Garden Club, the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs and the Deep South Region, and National Garden Clubs takes a chunk of my time and attention. Being a Master Flower Show Judge, a Floral Design Instructor, instructor of horticulture for National Garden Clubs, and a University of Florida Master Gardener crowds a bit more into my busy days. In addition to these activities, I contribute regularly to Florida Gardening magazine and other publications. I am author of four gardening books, all published by Pineapple Press, Sarasota, Florida. Read about them and visit me at www.mariesgardenanddesign.com.