Straight, Tall, and Showy

When I was in high school I mowed lawns for three or four “clients.” If I were doing the same thing now I would perhaps be encouraged to say that I had my own landscaping business. In fact, I simply rode from home to home on my bicycle and used the homeowners’ tools to take care of their yards.

Large landscape tree

Most of my customers were retired people who had simply aged out of taking care of their own lawns. One exception to this was the doctor that my mother worked for, Pat O’Daly. He owned a large Modern house set on a steep hillside in Garrison, New York.

The driveway wound up the side of the hill between two terraces of lawn. The lower terrace along Rt. 9D was nearly an acre and the smaller one directly in front of the house was perhaps a quarter of an acre. About once a week through the warmer months I would ride my bicycle the nine miles down to Garrison, push a mower around this mammoth lawn (it was too steep in places to use a riding mower) for about six hours, and then ride back. I was in pretty good shape back then.

Tulip like flower

At the south end of the larger lawn stood a tall, statuesque tree with furrowed gray bark and palmate leaves rather like a maple’s, but with four lobes instead of five. One week arrived to find it covered with greenish-yellow flowers shaped like tulips with orange centers. I had encountered my first Liriodendron tulipifera, also known variously as the tulip-tree, tulip poplar, yellow poplar, whitewood and about a dozen other regional names.

As it turns out the tulip tree is a significant canopy tree through much of its range, reaching its greatest size in the Ohio Valley and the foothills of the Appalachians in North Carolina. It can grow to be over 150 tall, which is tall for an eastern hardwood. It has an interesting northern boundary to its geographic distribution; it creeps into the Ontario lakeplain from the west along the lowlands and ranges across central Pennsylvania to New Jersey, but is not found on much of the Allegheny Plateau with the exception of the relatively broad valley associated with Cayuga Lake. (We have them here in Trumansburg, at least one in the “old growth” stand called Smith Woods.)

In New England the northern edge of the range corresponds almost exactly with the Massachusetts-Connecticut boundary, but it manages to range halfway up into Vermont along the Hudson-Champlain lowland. There is apparently pollen and fossil leaf evidence that Liriodendron was more widespread before the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene Epoch.

Palmate leaves

Most tulip trees (as I tend to refer to them) have very straight trunks and in a forest setting their lowest limbs tend to be very high, even relative to the trees around them. For this reason it is unusual to see the “tulip” flowers unless the tree is a landscape planting like the one that I first encountered in Garrison. There, in the open grown setting, the lower limbs were low enough to the ground that I had to duck under them as I mowed the grass. In the winter the crowns are distinguished by the upright, cone-like fruits, which develop from the flowers.

The flowers themselves are about three inches across with six waxy “tepals.” (Magnolias are primitive plants and don’t have differentiated petals and sepals.) The pistil (which, upon pollination turns into the winter cone) is large and resembles those of other members of the magnolia family. The fruits of the tulip tree also resemble those of many tree magnolias (e.g. Magnolia grandiflora). Magnolias have been around longer than bees, and their flowers are adapted to pollination by beetles. Bees, however, do pollinate tulip trees and the honey produced from the flowers is said to be better for baking than for “table honey.”

Tulip trees grow rapidly and will sprout readily from seeds. This quality, in addition to its flowers and erect geometry make it a fairly popular tree to plant in designed landscapes. At the northern edge of its range it is not a particularly common tree in the forest, but apparently pure stands of it occur in the south, where it is an important lumber tree. The wood is soft and similar to that of white pine in terms of strength and easy of working.