State tree of Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee, the tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) is a member of the Magnolia family. Through the years, people have also called it the yellow poplar, tulip magnolia, tulip poplar, white poplar and whitewood.
The tree takes its popular name from its flowers, which resemble those of the spring-flowering tulip bulb. Opening in late May or early June, the flowers have large bowl-shaped orange and yellow petals surrounding golden stamens. Once fertilized, the stamens turn into pale brown, cone-shaped dry fruits, called samaras, which release flat, winged seeds. The flowers often bloom only in the tree’s upper canopy, so they may not be very noticeable when viewed from the ground.
The leaves have a similarly interesting and distinctive shape. Five to six inches in width, they have four pointed lobes with a blunted top edge. In the fall, tulip tree leaves turn a vibrant shade of yellow. The tree’s trunk grows very straight, with smooth, gray bark that takes on a fissured appearance at maturity.
Reaching heights of more than 100 feet tall, the tulip tree’s branches start high on its trunk. The spreading crown may be 50 feet wide. Conical when young, this fast-growing tree takes on an oval shape with age. Botanists believed the tulip tree to be unique to North America until 1875, when a similar species was discovered in China. It is only distantly related to the poplar, but sometimes called by that name because its leaves flutter in the wind as do those of the poplar.
Hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9, the tulip tree’s natural range covers eastern North America from Massachusetts to Indiana, as far north as southern Ontario and as far south as northern Florida. Whatever its locale, it often towers above the neighboring trees.
Stands of older tulip trees still remain in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, some three to four feet in diameter and reaching upwards of 150 feet. History records some truly enormous tulip tree specimens with 12-foot diameters, reaching 200 feet in height, but few if any of these giants remain.
The Wood That Built America
The tulip tree played an important role in our expanding country's development. Its pale wood, lightweight and buoyant, made an ideal material for crafting long dug-out canoes. American woodsman and folk hero Daniel Boone reportedly traveled with his family into the wilderness in a 60-foot-long tulip tree canoe.
American colonists relied on tulip tree wood to build houses and other structures throughout New England. Later, as pioneer families headed west, tulip tree trunks became the stuff of sturdy log cabins. The strong but easily worked wood was turned into dishes, buckets, troughs, pumps, shingles, buggies, wagon beds and many other early American home and farm necessities.
Both Native Americans and early settlers employed the tulip tree as a pharmaceutical. Extracted into a tea, the bark became a tonic for a variety of ailments. When used externally, the tea was thought to treat infection and inflammation.
MSA SC 1477-1-5592
A Witness to History
One Maryland tulip tree in particular served as a long-lived witness to American history in the making. Located on the campus of St. John’s College in Annapolis, this tree gained distinction as one of America’s “Liberty Trees.” Estimated to be 400 years old at the end of the 20th century, it measured 27 feet around and rose close to 100 feet high.
As Sons of Liberty groups sprang up throughout the colonies in protest of the hated Stamp Act of 1765, large trees often served as rallying points. Such trees became known as “Liberty Trees.” Boston’s Liberty Tree (an elm) was immortalized on a medal designed by Paul Revere. Some of these trees met their end during the Revolutionary War at the hands of British soldiers, who sought to destroy symbols of colonial rebellion.
The Annapolis tulip tree not only survived the war, it lived to serve as a backdrop for Maryland’s Bicentennial observations two centuries later. After enduring serious damage from Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the tree was taken down. In 2007, a new 25' tulip tree was planted in its place.
Arbor Day Foundation: Tulip Tree
Ohio Department of Natural Resources: Ohio Trees -- Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
National Park Service: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia: Tuliptree
Maryland's Forest Conservancy District Boards: The Last Standing "Liberty Tree"
Thumbnail photo by Urban Scraper
Flower and leaf closeup thanks to DG member mystic
Tulip tree in bloom by Kristine Paulus
Old growth tulip tree by Nicholas_T (Nicholas A. Tonelli)
Liberty Tree from Archives of Maryland Online