Sunday, April 22, 2012

Is it a Tulip or a Tree?

The tree officially known as Liriodendron tulipifera is a tree, of course, but the tulip-shaped blossoms are a delight to those that come across them.  Since the tree can be very large, reaching well over 100 feet in ideal conditions, the blossoms that one sees up close are often those that were broken in a spring thunderstorm and found on the ground.  Such accidents allow us to appreciate the details of the beautiful flowers, including the orange markings inside them.

Liriodendron tulipifera

Common names for this tree include "tuliptree" and "tulip-poplar" and even "yellow-poplar".  This is not a true poplar tree (Populus), so the common names can be a bit confusing to some.  It is a fast growing tree in my area, usually growing straight and tall as an arrow.  Despite it's fast growth, the wood is strong.  I wish more nurseries would sell this tree to homeowners looking for fast growing shade trees. The natural range for this tree in Georgia is widespread throughout the state, from top to bottom and even out to the maritime counties.

View of flowers from the ground

It is a member of the Magnolia family (Magnoliaceae) and close examination of the buds and flowers reveal the resemblance.  There are only two individuals in the genus - our native one and one in China. Liriodendron tulipifera is considered the tallest hardwood in the eastern US, and the native range spans from Florida and Texas in the south all the way into southern New England and Canada and west to Iowa.

Lobed foliage


The tree is beneficial to wildlife in several ways.  The flowers are rich in nectar and so are an excellent food source for its pollinators, including hummingbirds.  It is the larval host plant for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) and others.  In the fall, mature trees produce abundant papery seeds that are eaten by cardinals, other birds and squirrels.

Next time you're looking for a fast growing shade tree, consider Liriodendron tulipifera.

Reference: USDA Forest Service publication


  1. I love Tulip Poplars! I agree, I think more nurseries should offer them.

    They're definitely a favorite of the birds. Look for Tulip Poplars and you're bound to find Red-eyed Vireos singing in the tops and warblers and gnatcatchers hunting insects attracted to the flowers.

  2. I love Tulip Poplars, I miss seeing the beautiful flowers. I'll have to get to the east coast to get my fix I guess :)

  3. What a lovely flower. Do the bees/butterflies go crazy over the flowers?

    1. You know the flowers are so high up that I am not sure! I know that beetles love magnolia flowers which are very similar. And there is plenty of information about hummingbirds being fond of them.

  4. Mary, bees love the flowers. We had a tenant with hives and you could watch the bees exit the hive and zoom straight up to the poplars surrounding the yard. Rocket launches!