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The Medicinal Quality of the Tulip Tree

By Elisabeth Ginsburg ; Updated September 21, 2017

The tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), a North American native, is sometimes also known as tulip poplar and yellow poplar. It is a tall, straight, deciduous tree with distinctive lobed leaves and even more distinctive flowers. The tulip-like flowers are yellow-green with orange blotches near the base of each petal and numerous golden stamens. Tulip trees are one of two species in the Liriodendron genus. The other, Liriodendron chinense, is a native of China. The liriodendrons are closely related to magnolias. Humans have used the trees for centuries in a variety of ways, including for medicines. Many parts of the tree were used for therapeutic purposes, including the bark, leaves, roots and root bark.

Liriodendron Root

Native Americans were the first to use the tulip tree for medicine, making decoctions of the tree's roots for use as a tonic and heart stimulant. These remedies remained in use long after the Colonial period. Liriodendron was included in the 1892 edition of the "U.S. Pharmacopoeia," which recommended the powdered root bark for relief of dyspepsia and dysentery. The powdered substance could also be combined with whiskey as a cough treatment. In his 1903 book "Specific Medications and Specific Medicines," Dr. John M. Scudder of Cincinnati recommended using a tincture of the root bark and alcohol as a tonic to remedy nervous complaints.

Liriodendron Leaves

Poultices and ointments made from tulip tree leaves and buds were used by Native Americans, including the Cherokee, for wounds, burns and inflammation. Some Native Americans also used the leaves in decoctions to treat arthritis.

Liriodendorn Bark

The bark, which contains an alkaloid called tulipferine, was thought by some Native Americans to have an aphrodisiac effect when chewed. Teas made from it were used to treat fever and digestive ailments. Early colonists adopted the custom of using bark teas to treat fever. A bark extract can also be used as a chinchona (quinine) substitute.

Chinese Medicine

The Chinese tulip poplar, Liriodendron chinense, has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine. As with its American counterpart, the bark has been made into medicine to treat fevers. Closely related magnolias have also been a part of traditional Chinese medicine.


Liriodendron tulipifera, the American tulip tree, can be found as far north as southern Ontario and as far south as northern Florida and Louisiana. It flourishes in hilly settings and damp forests. The trees are often used in parks and other expansive settings suitable for their large size.


About the Author


Elisabeth Ginsburg, a writer with over 20 years' experience, earned an M.A. from Northwestern University and has done advanced study in horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden. Her work has been published in the "New York Times," "Christian Science Monitor," "Horticulture Magazine" and other national and regional publications.