Most North Americans consider the tall tree Liriodendron tulipifera as the "tulip tree," but in some parts of the eastern United States, a blooming tulip tree refers to a saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana). It gets its name from the large pink flower buds that swell and open to look like massive, upright tulip blossoms on an oval-shaped tree. Depending on the familiarity someone has with garden plants, the name "blooming tulip tree" may be casually assigned to any spring-flowering magnolia, especially when its flower buds are swelling.
The blooming tulip tree resulted when French horticulturists crossed the Yulan lily tree (Magnolia denudata) with the lily-flowering magnolia (Magnolia liliiflora), species both native to China.
Growing 20 to 30 feet tall, this magnolia develops a rounded canopy of slightly upright-angled branches, often retaining low branches near the trunk base. Its smooth gray bark is attractive on the deciduous tree across the winter. In spring, branch tips reliably produce hundreds of pinkish violet flower buds that resemble tulip flowers. Each fragrant blossom comprises nine petals and is also described as looking like a goblet, or when it's fully open, like a cup-and-saucer measuring between 3 to 6 inches in diameter. After the flower show wanes, the medium green oval leaves emerge and change to an unimpressive, muddy yellow color in autumn before dropping off.
A blooming tulip tree requires an acidic soil (pH 7.0 and lower) in any fertile, well-draining soil. Appreciating even moisture year round and a layer of organic mulch over its root zone to keep summer soil temperatures cool. The website Floridata provides insight into its light requirements: morning sun with filtered shade in the heat of the day is ideal, but tolerates all-day sun if well mulched and soil moist. Grow it in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 5 through 9.
Dozens of cultivated varieties of this magnolia have been selected over the years focusing on flower size, petal colors, and flower timing in spring. Earlier flowering types are most susceptible to the early spring frosts and include selections like Lennei, Lombardy Rose, San Jose, and Andre LeRoy. Later blooming varieties include Verbanica, Brozzonii, Alexandrina, Speciosa. Picture begins blooming when only 3 feet tall in its youth. Overall, the flower colors range from nearly pure white to light pink and rose or some have petals one color with the flower interior a contrasting white or lighter pink shade.
Blooming tulip trees perform their best and age gracefully when their shallow roots are never disturbed. Soil compaction from lawn equipment, pedestrian traffic that wanders off sidewalks and parked vehicles kills roots and can lead to branch die back and reduced vigor and flowering. Irrigate these trees during droughts. Since flowers occur early in spring, locate plants in a site protected from winds and cold as late spring frosts destroy the exposed petals.