Story and Illustrations by Peter Loewer
Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew the magnificent tulip poplar and it’s rare that such a tree that sends up such fast-growing seedlings around the mother trunk would become one of the finest symbols of America’s natural heritage. This tree has many common names, including yellow poplar, blue poplar, tulip poplar, and tulip tree. Most gardeners call it tulip poplar, although it’s not a poplar at all, but a member of the magnolia family.
The scientific name is Liriodendron tulipifera, from the Greek word leiron, meaning lily (referring to the flowers) and dendron, meaning tree. The species name, tulipfera, means tulip bearing and there are only two species in the genus, one in America and one in China (L. chinense). The American species grows taller and has larger flowers. Many tulip poplars live more than 300 years with a trunk that approaches 5-10 feet in diameter. They inhabit eastern North America and range from Vermont west through southern Michigan, south to Louisiana, and east to northern Florida.
One of the largest tulip poplars is the historic Davie Poplar on the University of North Carolina campus, and it is also one of the oldest in the country. It was under this tree that Gen. William Richardson Davie and his committee, while taking lunch in 1789, selected Chapel Hill as the seat of the state university. This massive tree has been struck by lightning and survived several hurricanes. Davie Poplar Jr., grown from a cutting, and Davie Poplar III, grown from the eldest tree’s seed, are planted nearby.
The wood has long been held in high regard as construction lumber as well as for plywood. The grain is straight, there’s little shrinkage, and it has excellent gluing qualities. In Jefferson’s time, it was used for carriage bodies and shingles; today it’s used for cabinets, furniture, and pulp.
Tulip poplars have gray, closely ridged bark. The truncate leaves have four lobes, shallowly notched at the end, smooth, dark green above and light green below, turning a beautiful yellow in the fall. The flowers are both showy and handsome, with orange tints over greenish yellow corollas, marked to attract bees by day, and often moths at night, especially because this tree is also host to a most beautiful silk moth.
One of John James Audubon’s great bird lithographs portrays the upper branches of a blooming tulip poplar with a flock of Baltimore orioles flying about a nest, surrounded by those attractive leaves and two glorious tulip poplar flowers.