The tulip poplar

Biltmore Estate wants to chop down the tulip poplars. Sadly, these magnificent trees are only one-third of the way through their journey along life’s pathway — surviving five years of drought only to be cut down before their prime!

That both Washington and Jefferson grew this splendid tree merely adds yet another credit to its already illustrious resume. It’s rare for a tree that sends up such fast-growing seedlings to become, with maturity, one of the finest symbols of our natural heritage. The tulip is the state tree of both Indiana and Tennessee. What’s more, some historians claim that Daniel Boone fashioned a 60-foot pirogue (dugout canoe) from a single tulip-tree trunk to transport his family down the Ohio River from Kentucky to the western frontier.

This tree has many common names, including yellow poplar, blue poplar, tulip poplar, tulip tree and yellowwood. Like most gardeners today, Jefferson called it the tulip poplar. The scientific name is Liriodendron tulipifera, with the genus coming from the Greek: leiron meaning “lily” (referring to the flowers) and dendron (“tree”). The species name means “tulip-bearing.” Unfortunately for the tree’s reputation, however, it’s actually not a poplar at all but a member of the magnolia family.

The fast-growing tulip poplar can live well over 300 years, during which time its trunk can achieve a diameter of 5 to 10 feet. The tree inhabits a broad range in eastern North America: from Vermont, west through southern Ontario and Michigan, south to Louisiana, and east to northern Florida.

One of the best-known tulip poplars is the one to which George Washington tied his horse when he worshipped at Falls Church, Va., before the Revolutionary War. At that time, the venerable tree was at least 300 years old.

The historic Davie Poplar on the University of North Carolina campus is another of the oldest tulip poplars in the country. It was under this tree that General Davie took lunch when, in 1789, he and his committee chose Chapel Hill as the home of the state university. This massive tree has been struck by lightning and survived several hurricanes, including the damage caused by Hurricane Fran in 1996. Davie Poplar Jr., grown from a cutting, and Davie Poplar III, grown from the eldest tree’s seed, are planted nearby.

And then there’s the tulip poplar Washington planted in 1785 at Mount Vernon, later designated the estate’s official Bicentennial Tree.

Because the tulip poplar’s flowers bloom only at treetop — and most bees fly only 50 feet or so in the air — the National Arboretum has been manually pollinating these flowers since 1989, using a lift bucket and cotton swabs. Seedlings of this tree were sent to replace tulip poplars destroyed in the 1999 hurricane at the palace at Versailles.

The tulip’s bark is gray and closely ridged. The leaves are truncate with four lobes, shallowly notched at the end — a smooth, dark green above and light green below, turning a beautiful yellow in the fall. In silhouette, the leaves suggest a tulip. The trunks of old trees are often branchless for quite a distance. The specimen in my front yard shoots straight up, with the first lateral branch about 20 feet above the ground.

The wood has long been valued for construction lumber and plywood. The grain is straight, there’s little shrinkage, and it has excellent gluing qualities. In Jefferson’s time, it was used to make carriage bodies and shingles; today it’s found in cabinets, furniture and pulp.

Humans are not the only creatures to benefit from the tulip: Deer browse on the seedlings, hummingbirds visit the flowers, and according to the honey industry, the flowers from a 20-year-old tree produce enough nectar to yield four pounds of honey. In addition, birds and small animals feed on the winged fruits, called samaras (and it should be noted that few of those seeds are fertile). It’s a favorite nesting tree for many birds, and tiger swallowtail butterflies use the leaves. Even bears occasionally spend the winter sleeping in the huge hollows that often develop in old trees.

In the 1800s, a heart stimulant was extracted from the inner bark of the roots, and a rheumatism tonic was derived from the stem bark.

And the flowers! They’re showy and handsome, with orange tints brushed over greenish-yellow corollas, marked to attract bees. One of John James Audubon’s great bird lithographs portrays the upper reaches of a blooming tulip poplar with a flock of Baltimore orioles flying about a nest, surrounded by attractive leaves and two glorious flowers. Unfortunately, the only way that many people ever see these flowers is by walking underneath a blooming poplar after it’s been buffeted by winds the night before — or building a house with a deck overlooking a grove of these trees.

The blossoms resemble magnolia flowers until the central spike splits open, revealing the seeds. At maturity, magnolia seedpods open up the back, but tulip poplar fruits are dry and don’t open. Instead, a flat wing rises above the seed box, and the contraption flies away on the autumn breezes.

The tulip poplar is a noble lawn-and-shade tree that probably has a better reputation in Europe than here. As others have opined, “There is no season when the tree is not full of interest and beauty, no matter what its age.”

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