The American tulip poplar or tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) also goes by other common names, including yellow poplar, tulip wood, canoe wood and white wood. It is a member of the magnolia family. The Liriodendron tulipifera is indigenous to much of the eastern United States.
In 1585, Thomas Hariot documented the Liriodendron tulipifera as “rakiock” in the course of his expedition of discovery to the New World. In 1612, another explorer, Sir William Strachey, also noted the tree’s botanical details. The tulip poplar is a king of the forest, its pyramid-shaped crown often reaching heights of over 100 feet, with an erect trunk that grows to between two and four feet in diameter. The tree’s bright green four-pointed leaves are about six inches long.
The tulip poplar flowers during the summer, exhibiting showy, yellow blooms shaped like tulips with bands of orange colors at their centers. In the fall, the tree bears cone-shaped fruit, and an abundance of seeds that attract birds and wildlife.
The Liriodendron tulipifera grew in Europe by the 1660s, and in Britain by 1688. However, it was not until 1785 that the tulip poplar received due recognition when George Washington introduced it at Mount Vernon. It became the official Bicentennial Tree. During the American Civil War, tulip poplar bark was used in the treatment of fevers. It was also used to manufacture tea.
State Symbols, Uses
The flower of the Liriodendron tulipifera became Indiana’s state flower in 1923. However, in 1931, this selection was dropped in favor of the zinnia, and the tulip poplar itself became Indiana’s state tree. In Indiana, log cabin construction commonly favored timber from the abundant supply of tulip trees. Tulip wood was also a popular choice of frontiersmen in building canoes, and it remains popular for manufacturing furniture and interior and exterior trim for buildings.
Designation of the tulip poplar as the state tree of Tennessee dates from 1947.
A Cause of Controversy
In 1994, the tulip poplar officially became the state tree of Kentucky. The first such designation took place in 1956, but due to a clerical error, the bill was never formalized. A subsequent campaign to adopt the coffee tree as the state tree of Kentucky resulted in its formal adoption in 1976. However, the selection of the coffee tree was eventually overturned in favor of the tulip poplar, after much controversy.
Today, the tulip poplar is on the front lines of reforestation, due to its fast growing attributes. It remains one of the tallest eastern American hardwoods. The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia are among the natural habitats of American tulip poplars.