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The Monday Garden
Great Americans: Tulip, the Tree Kind

Issue No. 95 - January 18, 2004
by Sue Sweeney

  
The extreme cold has kept everyone inside, and now, once more, the sound of Sunday-morning snowplows. When you can get out, though, winter is a great time for tree viewing.
 
Here's a Liriodendron tulipifera, otherwise known as our towering native tulip tree. It's kin to the magnolias, but is often called a white or yellow poplar because its leaves shimmer in the breeze like poplars and aspens.

The tulip is TALL, second in North American only to the Giant Sequoia. Tulips often reach 150 feet with diameters up to 8 feet; they can live 300 years. (Compare the sequoia: 300', 30' diameter, and 3,000 years).

What distinguishes the tulip is good posture.

It's a very straight tree. The up-reaching branches have elbow-like bends and the bottom branches may be as high as 80' from the ground. The gray-brown bark has deep, vertical furrows like an elm. These Ent-like features could also describe some lindens and nut trees, so crane your neck and check the branch tips. The tulip holds on to its seed cones all winter.

 
Tulip have lovely flowers in spring, water lily-shaped and greenish with orange stripes. However, they're 'way, 'way up there, so look for a fallen one or bring the binoculars. Over the summer, the flowers mature into light brown cones that split open in the fall, shedding winged seeds (samaras) until spring.
 
The leaves have four points, two on each side, like a webbed duck foot that's missing the forward pointing toe. The leaves turn a lovely yellow in the fall.
 
 
In the wild, tulips have a wide natural range, from Northern Florida and Louisiana, to Michigan, Southern Ontario, and Southern New England. The best ones, they say, are in the Ohio Valley. Tulips like deep rich soil with adequate moisture and good drainage. It's said that they languish in soil that's too wet or too dry.

Tulips are good urban trees for large, open spaces. They're resistant to pests and they "play well with others"; the trees are tall enough that they don't shade out the competition. There are plenty of nice ones in my town (Stamford) but the trees are so tall that I think that people may not be aware of them unless they spend a lot of time looking upwards (to view the red-tailed hawk?).

Tulip trees are know as "honey trees" -- a single teenage tree (e.g. 25 years old) is said to produce something like 8 pounds of nectar, which must be a lot the way the experts talk about it. The seeds are also food for the songbirds, squirrels, mice and rabbits.

Curiously, tulips are one of the fastest growing hardwoods. (Note, that "fast" is a relative term when talking about trees.) This makes tulips commercially attractive for lumber. Tulips have fine-grained wood that's soft enough to be easily worked but hard enough to take a high polish. The Native American once made the giant, straight trunks into canoes; today tulip lumber is used for toys, furniture, paneling, veneer, crates and pulp.

Picture site: Stamford, CT, Mill River Park, Broad Street and Greenwich Avenue.

  
From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

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