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Tulip Trees

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In autumn, tulip tree leaves offer a golden color, in addition to their interesting shape.

In autumn, the leaves offer a gold color, in addition to their interesting shape.

David Beaulieu

Taxonomy of Tulip Trees:

Plant taxonomy classifies tulip trees as Liriodendron tulipifera. For their common name, you will also find "tulip poplar" and "yellow poplar," perhaps because their leaves shake in the breeze a la poplar leaves ("quaking" aspens). Nonetheless, they aren't poplars at all, being more closely related to magnolias.

Plant Type:

Liriodendron tulipifera plants are deciduous trees.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zones for Tulip Trees:

Liriodendron tulipifera is best grown in planting zones 5-9.

Characteristics of Tulip Trees:

Indigenous to eastern North America, tulip trees reach 90' or more in height. They're tall and straight-trunked, with a canopy width somewhat less than 1/2 their height at maturity. The branches begin rather far up the trunk and are often arranged symmetrically. Tulip trees can be identified by the shape of their leaves: the concavity at the tips of the leaves (or where one would expect a typical tip) suggests that someone came along and took a bite out of them! Their leaves provide yellow to gold fall foliage. The flowers that give tulip trees their name are yellowish-green, with a touch of orange on the outside.

Sun and Soil Requirements for Tulip Trees:

Grow Liriodendron tulipifera in full sun to partial sun, in a deep, well-drained soil with plenty of humus.

Landscaping Uses:

These giants function in the landscape as fast-growing shade trees with fall-foliage interest. The showy flowers of Liriodendron tulipifera make it something of an anomaly among really tall shade trees in Northern regions. But the OSU Extension notes that "often the tree does not flower until it reaches at least 15 years of age, and even then only sparsely in the uppermost reaches of the tree, making the upright-held flowers more difficult to notice and appreciate," adding that "older trees flower heavily and their lowermost branches become pendulous, allowing for visualization of the beautiful flowers up-close."

Caveats in Growing Tulip Trees:

Due to the following facts, some may judge Liriodendron tulipifera best suited to large properties, where homeowners are fostering woodland gardens, perhaps:
  • They can be messy for homeowners, as their flower petals will "litter" the area below just after blooming
  • The aphids that Liriodendron tulipifera attracts also make a mess, with their honeydew secretion
  • Some leaves will turn yellow and drop prematurely during dry summers
  • They should not be planted near homes in regions prone to hurricanes

Wildlife Attracted by Tulip Trees:

Hummingbirds are drawn to the nectar in the flowers of Liriodendron tulipifera, while bobwhites, rabbits, squirrels and other animals feed on the seed.

Plant Care for Liriodendron Tulipifera:

According to the Ohio State University Extension, the tulip tree "is extremely sensitive to being transplanted in the Autumn." The same source recommends that, should it be necessary, nonetheless, to transplant in fall, you should take extra pains "to amend the soil, fertilize, water thoroughly, mulch adequately, and avoid Winter salt spray."

Origin of the Names and Avoiding Confusion:

There is something of a discrepancy in the scientific name, Liriodendron tulipifera. Composed of the Greek words for "lily" and "tree," the genus name, Liriodendron suggests that the flowers resemble lilies. One is tempted to ask then, "Which is it: do tulip trees' blooms look like lilies or tulips?" Considering that we commonly call these giants "tulip trees," the specific epithet, tulipifera may carry more weight: tulipifera is Latin for tulip-bearing, referring to the flowers' appearance. To my eye, the leaves could also pass for two-dimensional representations of opened tulips (see photo, above right).

Don't confuse American tulip trees with the unrelated African tulip trees, Spathodea campanulata.

More on Fall Foliage Trees:

Ash Trees
Quaking Aspens
Autumn Blaze Maples
Beech Trees
Birches
Sumac
Maples
Japanese Maples
Dogwoods
Ginkgo Biloba
Oak Trees
Shagbark Hickory
American Sweetgums
Sunburst Honey Locusts

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