The Tulip Tree – ID, Facts and Growing Guide

The Tulip Tree is one of the fastest growing hardwoods native to North America.  Also known as Tulip Poplar, it produces numerous flowers in mid-Spring as well as a gorgeous display in the Fall when the leaves turn a bright, golden yellow color.  Reaching heights of 60-90′ tall, the Tulip Tree is an excellent choice for shade trees in your yard and landscaping.

Tulip Tree Fall Colors
A large, beautiful Tulip Tree displaying its Yellow Fall Colors

 Tulip Tree Facts

  • Hardy to USDA zone 4.  Check your USDA Zone here.
  • The Tulip Tree is one of the fastest growing hardwoods, at over 2′ per year (60 cm).
  • Native from Texas to Florida, north to MA/VT/Ontario.  West to Iowa.
  • An important tree for the ecosystem, the flowers provide nectar for pollinators
  • Larval host to the Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly and Tulip Tree Silkmoth

Physical Description

In general that Tulip Tree will have long straight trunks with little to no branching until higher up in the tree.  In a dense forest condition, there may be more irregular (crooked) growth and lower branching.  But if out in the open, they are generally tall and straight.

Tulip Tree Autumn
Very straight, tall trunk on a Tulip Poplar

Tulip Tree Bark / Trunk Identification

Mature Tulip Trees can have trunks that are 3-6′ diameter (1-2 m).  The bark of a Tulip Tree will have ridges with valleys that are ~1/4-1/2″ deep (1 cm).  The ridges will generally run in a vertical direction, while sometimes angling off from vertical.

Tulip Tree Bark Liriodendron tulipifera
Tulip Tree Bark, Close Up
Bark and leaf of Tulip Poplar
More Tulip Tree Bark
Liriodendron tulipifera Tulip Tree
Overall shape of a mature Tulip Poplar Tree

Tulip Tree Leaf Identification

Tulip Trees have one of the most unmistakable leaf shapes in the forest!  The leaf will typically be twice as wide as it is long.  Also, the shape will consist of four points, spread evenly from the stem, in almost a semi-circle pattern.  The leaf of younger trees will be smaller.  The size of the leaf can range be 4″ wide and 2″ long, upwards of 4″ wide to 8″ long.

Tulip Tree Leaf Liriodendron tulipifera
Leaves of the Tulip Tree
A massive leaf specimen. For reference, that is a 3 year old holding it (with an oak leaf on the left).

Flower

The flower of the Tulip Tree is pretty, but difficult to see since it occurs up in the canopy.  But the flower characteristics will be in the general shape of a tulip.  It will be cup shaped and yellow/orange to green in color.

Late in Summer or early Fall, a cone will develop that contains the seeds.  Once the fruit /cone is dried and brown it will splay out and release the seeds to be scattered by the wind.  Individual seeds occur at the base of a wing that will fall to the earth.

Tulip Tree Flowers Autumn
Tulip Tree Flowers in Autumn/Fall – way high up in the tree!

Root

Tulip Tree Roots are more shallow, but woody and branching.  It does not have an overly deep taproot.

Tulip Tree Quick Reference Table

Tulip Tree / Tulip Poplar Quick Reference Table
Common Name Tulip Tree, Tulip Poplar
Scientific name Liriodendron tulipifera
Growth Rate +24″ per year (60 cm) in good conditions
Bloom Duration 2-4 weeks
Color Yellow/Orange/Green
Bloom Size Large Yellow Flowers, high up in the branches
Characteristics Single Flower, similar to a tulip
Height 60-90’ (20-30 m)
Spacing/Spread 30-50’ (10-20 m)
Light Requirements Full Sun / Partial Shade
Soil Types Anything with enough organic matter, but prefers loam.  Must be well drained.
Moisture Well Drained Soil
Maintenance Just raking leaves!  Or pulling unwanted seedlings.
Typical Use Shade Tree, Border
Fauna Associations Birds, Bees, Butterflies
Larval Host Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly, Tulip Tree Silkmoth
Sowing Depth 0-1/8” (0-3 mm)
Stratification 2-3 months cold stratification
Native Range USDA Zones 4-9
Notes Numerous volunteer seedlings occur each Spring.  Easy to transplant when very young.

Growing Conditions

Tulip Tree will grow best in well drained soil that is rich in organic matter.  But, since it is a native plant it is very versatile.  I’ve personally seen it growing deep forests though.  And studies have shown that the seedlings can still grow very well in shade.

A truly massive specimen of Tulip Poplar

 

How to care  for

Provide this tree a full sun location in well drained soil, and leave it.  Diseases are very rare, and deer and rabbits leave it alone.

Maintenance

None required.  Can rake leaves in the fall and pull unwanted seedlings.

How to Establish from Seed

Seed Collection

Seed collection should occur in fall.  If you are able to reach the fruits / cones where the flowers were, pick them when they are brown/dry.  Otherwise, locate a tree and look for small leaves near the ground.  These will be single blade leaves, with a seed attached at the base.

Seed Planting

To grow from seed, plant the seeds immediately in fall, or cold moist stratify them for 90 days in the refrigerator in a moist growing medium.  Planting depth should be fairly shallow, approximately 1/8″ deep (3 mm).

Seed from the Tulip Tree

An alternative method for getting Tulip Trees for free

The Tulip Tree will sprout numerous seedlings all over each Spring.  I have no trees within 30-50 yards of my house, but I pull 10-20 seedlings each year.  This is because the wind does a great job scattering the seed far an wide.  So, if you know where this tree grows, you just need to get out there and locate some seedlings.  Even at only a couple weeks old, the distinct leaf shape is evident.  See pic below for a random seedling that grew in my yard.

Tulip Tree Seedling Liriodendron tulipifera
This small Tulip Tree Seedling could be dug up and transplanted to another location, or to a pot to grow larger.
Tulip Poplar Seedling
Another seedling, much larger than the previous photo. This seedling should not be transplanted until dormant in late Fall or early Spring.

But, you just need to dig them up when they are still only a few inches tall, just after true leaves have developed.  Then you can safely transplant them to a pot to grow larger, or a location where you want the tree to grow.

Fauna

This tree will attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.  It is a great landscape tree to have nearby for wildlife.

Pests and diseases

This tree will attract aphids.  But they will not kill the tree.

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