A member of the magnolia family, the tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) is a flowering tree native to the Eastern United States that has enjoyed longtime popularity for its colorful, tulip-like blooms. The tree provides good value for the gardener who is seeking a native, easy-care ornamental tree.
The tulip poplar is a deciduous tree, meaning it loses its leaves during the frosts of winter and grows them back in the spring. Before its leaves cascade to the ground, however, they turn from rich green to a vibrant, bright yellow. The fiery autumn color of the tulip poplar is one of the main reasons why gardeners enjoy cultivating this tree. One cultivar, the 'Aureomarginatum,' boasts green leaves that are lined in yellow throughout the growing season.
The tulip poplar can grow to be more than 100 feet tall, which is ideal for those with a lot of land who are looking for an attractive shade tree. The tree is versatile, however--those who have limited space can cultivate a dwarf variety. Tulip poplars are often used in neighborhoods or open public places where their impressive size can be accommodated. The size of the tulip poplars has helped make it valuable to those in the lumber business, especially since the tree is so fast-growing. The light wood of the tree can easily be worked, and is used for furniture, veneer and pulpwood.
The flowers of the tulip poplar look strikingly similar to those of a real tulip. The silky, slightly shiny, cup-shaped blooms appear in spring or summer, depending on the climate. They may last two to three months. The flowers are about 2 inches long, and are a greenish yellow color tinged with orange. Despite their resemblance to tulips, they are actually magnolia flowers.
Tulip poplars are picky about soil and moisture, but despite this, they are fairly easy to care for. Tulip poplars are remarkably pest and disease free, though they may have the occasional trouble with canker and the yellow-poplar weevil. Tulip poplars are valuable for their resilience: once planted, they can be left largely unattended. The tree does best in USDA zones 5 to 9, ideally in a well-drained, moist soil and full sunlight.
Gardeners who enjoy having wildlife in the garden will value the tulip poplar, which attracts several different animals. The brown, scaly fruits of the tree which appear after the flowers have faded in the autumn and winter will attract hungry squirrels. White-tailed deer will often come up to the tree, as they like to nibble and chew on the tulip poplar's fallen twigs.