Although I grew up in Maryland, in the land of the tulip tree, I never saw one until I was a teenager, on a glorious autumn day when my brother initiated me into the art of fishing. No wonder Walt Whitman called it “the Apollo of the woods.”
The tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, is the tallest, straightest broadleaved tree in the eastern United States. It is native from the Great Lakes to the east coast down to northern Florida, mostly east of the Mississippi River.
In woodlands, this rapidly growing tree can reach nearly 200 feet, with a trunk free of branches for the first 80 feet. When open-grown, trees have widely spreading lower branches and are considerably shorter. Life expectancy in the wild can be as long as 500 years. Tulip trees are native to our region in the Indiana Dunes and Michigan’s Warren Woods.
Tulip trees are not only tall, they have girth. Their trunks can spread to 6 feet in diameter. In “Specimen Days,” Whitman writes about a hollow tulip tree “4 feet across about 18 feet up the trunk … large enough [that] nine men at one time, ate dinner therein … and 12 to 15 men could now, at one time, stand within its trunk.”
The glossy, green, simple leaf dangles from a long stem, from which it flutters in the slightest breeze. This similarity to poplars is responsible for two of its common names, tulip poplar and yellow poplar. Its shape resembles a maple leaf with a shallow notch at the top.
The resulting appearance, some say, resembles a tulip. According to a legend quoted in Juliette Huxley’s 1987 autobiography, “Leaves of the Tulip Tree,” the explanation lies with Adam and Eve. Upon being expelled from the Garden of Eden, “Eve tried to take a branch with her but succeeded only in snatching the tip of a leaf from the tulip tree. …” Whether due to Eve or evolution, the tulip tree leaf is unmistakable.
Tulip tree is one of the few native shade trees with flowers. The flower gave the tree its scientific name, Liriodendron, from the Greek, meaning “lily tree,” and tulipifera from tulip and fera, meaning “to bear.” Trees begin to flower around age 15.
Flowers appear in June, high up in the canopy among the leaves, and may be 4 inches across and more than 2 inches long. Each has six yellowish-green upright petals and four smaller, drooping, bright-orange lower petals that create a splash of color.
Although poets sing their praises, the truth is that the tree has to be very mature, with branches hanging down, before a passerby would even notice the flowers. While individually exquisite, they seem shy, almost hiding among the leaves. If one knows they are there, the passerby glimpses one, then another and then, all of a sudden, as his or her eyes become accustomed to the hunt, a treasure trove of blossoms appears.
Not surprisingly, tulip tree is a member of the magnolia (Magnoliaceae) family. Famed botanist Donald Culross Peattie called it the “King of the Magnolia family” and described flowers that “hold the sunshine in their cups, setting the whole giant tree alight.” Nineteenth-century American poet and editor William Cullen Bryant waxed eloquent in this excerpt from his poem “The Fountain”:
The tulip-tree, high up,
Opened, in airs of June, her multitude
Of golden chalices to humming birds
And silken-winged insects of the sky.
Flowers are “perfect,” meaning a single flower contains both the male and female reproductive parts. Insects, especially flies, beetles and bees, are the pollinators and have to be alert, because flowers are receptive to pollination for only a day. Donald Beck, who seems to be the principal student of the tree, said, “flowers from a 20-year-old tree produce enough nectar to yield four pounds of honey.”
The fruits are samaras – winged seeds enclosed in a hard coat that spiral to the ground like helicopters driven by the wind. They appear in fall, hang on through winter, and drop individually to the ground, where they can wait seven years for a sunny opening in which to sprout.
Tulip tree has a multitude of uses, both medicinally and commercially. The wood is lightweight, straight-grained, easily worked and does not split. It takes glue and paint well, making it ideal for framing construction, furniture veneers and musical instruments.
Its sapwood is cream-colored, explaining the common name “whitewood,” which is used by carvers. Its heartwood is yellowish, explaining the lumberman’s common name for it, yellow poplar. The wood was used by pioneers for carriage bodies and shingles for homes. Daniel Boone is said to have carved his 60-foot dugout canoe from the tulip tree.
Natives and other pioneers did the same, leading to another common name, “canoe tree,” because it could be easily worked to the thinness necessary for a lightweight craft. It colonizes bare ground, preventing soil erosion, and will often be found near water. Tulip trees were growing proof to pioneers that the land would bear fruit.
In 1805, Thomas Jefferson described the “tulip poplar,” as he called it, as “The Juno of our Groves.”
He thought the lands in his Louisiana Purchase would resemble his familiar east. Touchingly, he wrote,
Beyond affection and farewell glaze of tears, I saw
My West – the land I bought and gave and never
Saw, but like the Israelite,
From some high pass or crazy crag of mind, saw –
Swale and savannah and the tulip tree
Immortally blossoming to May. …”
Alas, as Mr. Jefferson would learn from Lewis and Clark, the cottonwood, not the tulip, was the goddess of the plains.
At last count, Evanston had 83 tulip trees on its parkways. Several specimens may be easily seen along Payne Street adjacent to Eggleston Park.