The tulip poplar (liriodendron tulipifera)is reported to be the tallest hardwood tree in eastern North America. It is also sometimes called the tulip magnolia, whitewood, tulip tree, yellow-magnolia, tulipwood, and fiddletree among other names.
This tree is actually a part of the magnolia family, and it is not a true poplar tree. It makes for a great ornamental tree as it produces beautiful, fragrant flowers. These tulip shaped flowers are a showy greenish-yellow in color, with an orange band or cup on the tepals. Blooms form rapidly from April to June, depending on location.
Leaves, Bark, and Twig Characteristics
The leaves are unique but simple, measuring at about five to six inches long and wide. The top of the leaves are smooth and shiny, with bright, dark green color. The color underneath is a more pale green, with downy veins. Tulip poplar trees are deciduous, which means they do lose their leaves each winter. However, in the fall the leaves turn into a remarkable clear, bright yellow. This brilliant yellow foliage is one of many reasons the tulip poplar is a popular choice to be utilized for ornamental purposes.
The bark of a younger tulip poplar is relatively smooth and light ashy-gray in color. As the tree ages, the bark becomes thick with deep interlacing furrows. Twigs are usually lustrous and smooth, with an olive to reddish-brown color.
It bears a narrow, light brown cone formed from many samaras, which reach about two to three inches long. These cones are soft and fleshy, maturing from August to October and falling through late fall and winter.
The tulip poplar serves wonderfully as a shade tree during the summer months. However, it is fast growing and may not be suited for all areas with its large size. At maturity, it can reach heights of 80-120 feet (or more) and 30-40 feet wide. This characteristic also makes the tulip poplar a great choice for reforestation purposes.
Its attractively scented, heavy, honey-flavored nectar during the spring months attracts birds and other small wildlife. During the fall and late winter, the fruits offer food to small animals like squirrels. White-tailed deer are known to browse on its soft twigs as well, giving this tree a decent wildlife value.
The wood of a tulip poplar also holds value, as it is light, soft, and easily worked. It can be used for veneer, furniture stock, and pulpwood. Early settlers even used this wood quite often in building and for making home remedies as well.
Hardiness, Planting Zone, and Soil Requirements
The tulip poplar is quite easy to grow, and will thrive and survive nearly anywhere. It does best in deep, rich, and moderately moist and well draining soil. Its root system is fleshy, and does not extend far out from the plant itself. While it does have a good drought tolerance, extremely dry or extremely wet areas do not provide the best conditions for healthy growth. Typically, it is best to keep a pH level of 4.5 to 7.5.
Another great attribute of this tree is that it is highly resistant to disease and insects. It is hardy in USDA plant hardiness zones 4-9. While it is tolerate of partial shade, this tree thrives in full sunlight, with about six hours of sun each day. When considering planting this tree, one key factor is to make sure the tree will have ample growing space. Overall, the tulip poplar is an exquisite tree that is moderately simple to care for, and offers a beautiful display of color.