The tulip tree, tulip poplar and yellow poplar are all the same species of tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), and to add to the confusion, the tree belongs to the magnolia family and not the poplars. The tulip tree is not a difficult tree to identify due to some very distinctive foliage, flowers and a large size. The tulip tree is a valuable source of fine lumber that goes into products such as furniture, but is also useful as a shade species.
Before logging took the largest tulip trees from their forest settings, some of these giants reached 200 feet high. The species is the tallest of the eastern forests in the United States, featuring a straight trunk with few branches until you reach the canopy. Some can grow now to be 150 feet tall, but most tulip trees are in the 80- to 120-foot-size range, says the “National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees.” Tulip trees can have a trunk as wide as 4 to 6 feet.
Two different features of the tulip tree give it its name: its flowers and leaves. The cup-shaped flowers are as wide as 2 inches and look like those of the tulip, with six petals that are green-yellow on the exterior and yellow-orange on their insides. The flowers, however, may be difficult to spot in the larger specimens, as they typically occur in the tops of the tree. The leaves, when you observe their shape, look like the outline of a tulip. The leaves can be from 4 to 6 inches wide and usually have four lobes. In the autumn, the leaves change to a yellow hue.
Three states—Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee—designated the tulip tree as their state tree. The tulip tree occurs from the extreme southern parts of New England westward to the Great Lakes as far as Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. The southward border of the tree’s range extends east from eastern Louisiana to northern Florida. The tulip tree sometimes grows in pure stands and in damp forests, as well as on field borders.
Consider how much room you have to allow a tulip tree to grow before you select this species as an ornamental or shade tree. The size of the tree often does not suit small yards. The tulip tree will grow well in full or partial sunshine, in soil with a slight acidity and in ground that drains fairly well. It can adapt to less than perfect conditions such as dry soil. Tulip tree grows quickly when young, as much as 2 to 3 feet each year. Transplant one in the spring instead of waiting until autumn to give it a full growing season to establish itself.
In addition to its uses in the lumber industry, due to the wood being soft, lightweight and easy to work with, the tulip tree is an important species ecologically. The tree’s buds and twigs are popular with deer, squirrels and many types of birds. Bees seek out the flowers, due to their prominence, and the nectar they find eventually becomes honey in many instances. Those that look for morel mushrooms, a very sought-after species for food purposes, know that they often exist beneath a tulip tree, says the Virginia Department of Forestry.