Tulip-tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) is a beautiful tree for all seasons – in the spring tulip-shaped whitish flowers stand on short stalks near the leaves. Often the flowers are first recognized on the pathway below the tree, each pale petal with an orange spot at the base. Numerous straight stamens are inside the petals, surrounding a cone-shaped pistil that looks much like the seed cones of magnolia, a close relative. In the fall fruits are formed around the upright cone, as dry, tan samaras with one seed inside, covering the ground nearby as they fall.
The leaves look like no other, with an unusual square shape and four shallow lobes. Bright green in the spring, the leaves are a rich gold in autumn. When they drop from the branches late in the growing season, a distinctive scar remains, round and somewhat elevated with several dots in the center arranged in a circle– these remain from the tubes carrying water and food to and from the leaf. The branches are stout and lustrous and end with buds shaped like a duck’s bill with a line (stipule) underneath running all the way around.
Tulip-tree is easy to recognize since no other broad-leaved tree in our area has a gray, grooved trunk without lower branches. It is one of the largest hardwoods in the east, commonly reaching 80-100 feet with a 2-5 foot trunk diameter. While preferring moist, well-drained soils and rich woods, it makes a very desirable street, shade, or ornamental tree. Tulip tree ranges throughout eastern U.S. to the Mississippi River, and in every county in Virginia.
In the 1600’s few plants were available in London nurseries and gardeners were sent abroad on plant-buying trips. In 1637 John Tradescant The Younger voyaged to Virginia and returned with 200 specimens, including Tulip-tree and Bald-cypress. As early American botanists John Bartram, Mark Catesby and John Clayton collected and identified the flora of eastern North America, a vigorous business developed, supplying nurseries in London with American species.
With its long, straight trunk, Tulip-tree was a favorite of the Native Americans for their dugout canoes. Bees make quantities of honey from the flowers, and the seeds are eaten by squirrels and songbirds.
By Helen Hamilton, past-president of the John Clayton Chapter, VNPS
Photos: Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) taken by Helen Hamilton