Characteristics of Tulip Poplar Wood

A tall, fast-growing timber tree native to the eastern United States from the southern Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) is also known locally as whitewood, yellow poplar or tulip tree. It gets the name "tulip poplar" because of the yellow-green and orange flowers that look like tulips and occur high up in the canopy. Also, the shape of the leaves looks like a turban or four-petaled tulip flower cup. This tree grows in USDA winter hardiness zones 5 through 9.


The center of the log contains a heartwood that is greenish-yellow, the reason why the tree is called "yellow poplar" even though it is not related to true poplar trees (Populus spp.). Around this yellowish heartwood is the white sapwood. The grains of the wood are straight and don't fluctuate in color. The U.S. Forest Service mentions that if the trees are cut during the warm months, especially if humidity is present, can deteriorate because of a fungus (Ceratocystis pluriannulata) that also stains the heartwood. In addition, burrowing of the Columbian timber beetle into the wood causes blackish discoloration bands, creating a wood known as "calico poplar."


Tulip poplar is a low-density hardwood, according to the University of Kentucky. When the wood is cured to a moisture content of 12 percent, it has a density approximately 29 lb. per cubic foot, making it malleable. This light density can cause fibers to tear or fuzz when dull-bladed hand tools are used to cut and carve it. The porous wood fibers receive both paint and stain pigments well. In comparison to other trees' wood densities, tulip poplar is similar to cottonwood. The wood is not as dense as oaks, but denser than basswood.


Tulip poplar wood is lightweight, and the wood's strength is intermediate in comparison to other hardwoods, according to the University of Kentucky. The softness of the wood makes it easy to carve, cut and shape with hand tools as well as with power machinery to make interior paneling and cabinetry.


Historically, pioneers in the woodlands of the eastern United States encountered tulip poplar trees that were upwards of 190 feet tall with trunks measuring 10 feet around, according to the University of Kentucky. These long-trunked, old trees provided exceptional wood for buildings and furniture and for the most part, excellent resistance to decay and insect pests once dried. Today, the secondary and subsequent regrowth of tulip poplar forests find trees no taller than 150 feet at most and trunk circumferences merely 2 to 4 feet. Boring insects and fungal agents today limit the overall durability of tulip poplar wood in outdoor applications once the wood is harvested from fallen logs.

Keywords: tulip poplar wood, yellow poplar wood, types of wood, types of lumber

About this Author

James Burghardt has written for "The Public Garden," "Docent Educator," nonprofit newsletters and for horticultural databases, becoming a full-time writer in 2008. He's gardened and worked professionally at public and private gardens in Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. He has written articles for eHow and GardenGuides.