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What is a Tulip Tree?

Todd M.
Todd M.

The tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) is a species of deciduous trees that belongs to the Magnoliaceae family. Also known as tulip poplar, this species is native to North America and is closely related to the southern magnolia. Tulip trees are named after their yellow and red flowers that have a shape that is similar to tulip flowers. These trees are a popular choice for gardeners and landscapers as shade trees and are cultivated as a source of cheap timber for the lumber industry.

A tulip tree flower has six petals that are greenish white with a single band of orange around the entire flower. Tulip tree flowers are often pollinated by bees, and honey that is made from tulip trees is popular in the baking industry. These flowers do not bloom until the tulip tree has developed its full spring foliage. As a result, tulip poplar flowers often go unnoticed until they have finished blooming and drop to the ground.

Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

When it is not in bloom, a tulip tree can easily be identified by its leaves. The body of a tulip tree leaf has a square shape that resembles the outline of a cat's face with two lobes for ears and two lobes for cheeks and whiskers. These leaves are typically 6 inches (about 15 centimeters) long and 5 inches (about 13 centimeters) wide. During the fall, tulip tree leaves turn a brilliant shade of yellow.

Tulip trees have a long lifespan and can become quite large once they reach maturity. Fully grown tulip trees are typically 70 to 90 feet (21.3-27.4 meters) tall and 35 to 90 feet (10.6-27.4 meters) wide. A lone tulip tree can be spotted at a distance by its pyramidal, conical shape.

The ideal location to plant a new tulip poplar is a spot that offers moist soil with good drainage and receives plenty of full sun. The trees do well in hardiness zones 4 through 9 and prefer an acidic soil. A sapling should be planted with an established root ball in the early spring. Take the size of a fully grown tulip poplar into consideration before planting.

The lumber that is harvested from tulip trees is sometimes confused by laymen as true poplar wood due to one of the common names for this tree. The poplar wood that is widely used in the furniture industry is harvested from certain species of the Poplus genus. Tulip poplar wood is a softer type of wood that is similar to pine. It is primarily used as a low cost timber for cabinets, coffins and siding.

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