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On Gardening: Tulip popular among our most beautiful trees

January 20, 2014

The tulip poplar blooms are beautiful and provide nectar for hummingbirds while the leaves feed the caterpillars of the Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly.

Without a doubt the tulip poplar has to be considered among the United States’ most beautiful trees and one that has vastly more importance than you might have considered. Botanically speaking it is Liriodendron tulipifera and is not really a poplar but in the magnolia family.

It is native over a huge range, 29 states, from East Texas to Florida and as far north as Ontario, Canada. It is considered a large tree that can reach more than 100 feet so the small urban landscape may not be ideal all though there are smaller selections. It could, however, certainly work in today’s neighborhood green spaces and parks.

I’ve always admired the large fiddle-shaped waxy leaves but the flowers are simply stunning. I remember when my son and I were on a golf course and he had hit an errant shot to the left of the green. He called me over to what I expected to be a plugged or lost ball. Instead he asked, "Dad what in the world is this tree." It was a tulip poplar in bloom and I was ecstatic that he had noticed. If it will stop a teenager on a golf course think what it will do in your landscape.

The flowers are indeed reminiscent of a tulip in shape. They are a bright and cheerful yellow with orange bands at the bottom. Obviously it is the lower branches that provide the best view and opportunities for photography, otherwise you’ll be admiring through the binoculars. The leaves are fairly reliable on yielding a golden yellow in the fall.

This is the state tree for Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. But it is important to other states too. The flowers feed the ruby throated hummingbird which everyone loves. The leaves serve as the larval host for the Eastern tiger swallowtail, which is the state butterfly of Delaware, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. But that is not all; the seeds feed at least 10 species of birds including the state birds of 13 states.

The trees have a tendency to grow straight and tall which allowed Native American to carve entire canoes from the trunks. Consequently in some areas there are still referred to a canoe-wood. Today the wood is still used in cabinetry, furniture and veneer. It also has a long history of medicinal uses.

Spring is a great time to plant a tulip poplar. They need room and they need fertile moist soil. Though we are talking about a native tree there are around a dozen varieties in the marketplace including a couple that are known to be a little-shorter. Look for Little Volunteer, Ardis dwarf and Compactum. When you find yours, planting is easy. Dig you hole at least twice as large as the root ball planting at the same depth it is growing in the container. The wide hole will allow quick root expansion and acclimatization in your landscape. A lot of new homes are being built in neighborhoods that have been clear-cut of trees. This might be a tree for consideration in helping you to start your forest again.

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