Last year, our daughter's family moved to Malvern, which is just outside of Philadelphia. While visiting, I was in awe as I gazed at the height of the trees in their yard, especially the tulip trees.
When back home I began reading about tulip trees and found that they are the tallest of all eastern hardwood trees and second only to the sycamore tree in diameter. However, the tulip tree unlike the sycamore tree, which becomes hollow, usually is free of decay.
The tulip tree (Liriodendron tulip era) has many common names. Although the lumbermen referred to the tulip tree as a yellow poplar or just plain poplar, it is not related to the poplars.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BILL BOWER
The tulip tree gets its common name from its flowers.
The tulip tree often is called the tulip magnolia because it is closely related to the magnolias.
My friend, Bob Bastion, who is a cabinet maker, refers to the wood as tulip poplar. Cabinet makers like the wood because it is straight grained and easily worked.
The wood has high commercial value because of its versatility. Tulip trees can be used as a substitute for the increasingly scarce softwoods used in furniture and framing construction.
In Tennessee, the tree is referred to as canoe wood because the Native Americans used its trunks to make dugout canoes. Daniel Boone was said to have made a 60-foot long canoe from a tulip tree. He then piled his family and gear into the canoe and sailed down the Ohio River into Spanish territory, away from an ungrateful Kentucky.
Pioneers often built their houses from tulip logs. They also lined their wells with the logs, which added no taste to the water, making the tulip wood sought after to crate perishable foods.
After the Civil War, the railroads penetrated the southern Appalachians and the hardwood resources of the mountains were tapped, with lumbermen taking only the largest tulip trees. Only trees that contained up to 400 board feet were accepted at the mills.
By 1905, the mills were glad to get tulip trees 14 inches at the stump, which only sawed 100 board feet. Today, tulip logs are being cut 9 to 10 inches thick. Even the young trees are cut for pulp because the tulip poplar can be made into high-grade book paper.
The scientific name Liriodendron comes from two Greek words meaning "lily" and "tree," while tulipifera is an old generic name meaning "tulip-bearing."
It is a fast growing tree able to reach 300 years of age when growing on the deep, rich, well-drained soils of forest coves and lower mountain slopes. A sapling will grow quite fast for the first 20 to 30 years; however, by then, the peak rates of growth and mortality are past and the crown canopy is closed. Crown size on surviving trees is reduced and diameter growth is considerably slowed.
In the southern Appalachians, where the tulip tree is the most commercially valuable species, it attains a trunk diameter of 8 to 10 feet, and clear of branches for the first 80 to 100 feet.
The Appalachian Mountains and the adjacent Piedmont, running south from Pennsylvania to Georgia, contained 75 percent of all tulip poplar trees growing stock in 1974.
The tulip tree has a singly occurring, perfect flower 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide, which gives the tree its name. The flower has six petals varying in color from a light yellowish green at the margin to a deep orange band at the center.
A tulip tree usually produces its first flowers at 15 to 20 years of age and can continue production for 200 years.
The tulip tree is valued as a honey tree and a source of food for wildlife. In one season, a tulip tree less than 20 years old reportedly yields 8 pounds of nectar equal to 4 pounds of honey.
Although the tree has nominal value as a source of food for wildlife in comparison to other species, its seeds are eaten by quails, purple finches, rabbits, gray squirrels and white-footed mice.
The leaves of the tree, which are in the shape of a tulip flower, are dark green, lustrous above and paler (often with a slight whitish bloom) beneath.
At first, the fruit is green, then it turns brown in the fall as it ripens. The fruit, which is cone-like, is 2 1/2 to 3 inches long. It ripens in September and October and the cones often can be seen on the tree's higher limbs, where they could remain throughout the winter months.
My favorite tree is the sycamore; however, the trees in our daughter's yard have placed the tulip tree in a close second.
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.