“Tulip tree” is certainly a misleading name for a tree that is actually a member of the magnolia family. Nevertheless, that is the name by which this handsome tree is called worldwide, due to its colorful, tuliplike orange and yellow flowers. Although no 200-foot tulip trees are known to exist today, some reports say that they did once upon a time. The Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, among other places, is home to the tulip tree.
The American tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) dates back to at least the early 16th century, when Thomas Hariot documented it as “Rakiock” during his travels to the New World around 1585. Other visitors to America, such as Sir William Strachey in 1612, also recorded the details of this tree. The American tulip tree is one of the tallest eastern American hardwoods. It has distinctive, four-pointed leaves and tuliplike flowers that usually bloom in late May and June.
It was at Mount Vernon that the tulip tree had its proudest historical moment. George Washington introduced the tulip tree there in 1785. It would grow so majestically that it would be selected as Mount Vernon’s official Bicentennial Tree.
Over the years, the American tulip tree has acquired several names, including tulip poplar, yellow poplar, white wood and canoe wood. The latter name goes back to when Native Americans built canoes from the lightweight timber logs of this tree, while early settlers constructed shelters. During the Civil War, the bark of the tulip tree served to treat fevers. It was also used to manufacture tea. The root of the tree became a flavoring agent for beer.
In 1931, Liriodendron tulipifera became the official state tree of Indiana. Tennessee selected the tulip tree as its official tree in 1947. In 1994, the tulip tree became the designated state tree in Kentucky.
Chinese Tulip Tree at Kew Gardens
The American tulip tree was cultivated in Europe by the 1660s. It was introduced into Britain in 1688, although it appears to have enjoyed less success on British soil. At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the mission statement is “To inspire and deliver science-based plant conservation worldwide, enhancing the quality of life.” To this end, two expeditions to Dabashan, Sichuan in China in 1996 and 1999 gathered seeds of another well-known tulip tree, Liriodendron chinense. This is an endangered species of the tulip tree that was first introduced into Britain in 1901. In 2001, 28 of these young tulip trees were planted in a formation called “Tulip Tree Avenue” at Kew.
African Tulip Tree
The African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata) has received a sunny welcome in Santa Barbara, California, where it is reportedly thriving (see Resources). Like the American version, the African tulip tree has large, colorful flowers. The flowers are about 4 inches in diameter and are orange or golden yellow, with deep green foliage. This handsome evergreen tree can grow to about 50 feet high in optimum, tropical conditions. It is also found in Hawaii.