Tulip Poplar: Tree of Many Names

Part 2 of our species series, highlighting the kinds of trees that will be planted through Neighborhood Planting Captains this fall: the mighty Tulip Poplar!

Blog written by AmeriCorps service member Esmeralda Figueras

The Tulip Poplar, also called Yellow Poplar or Tulip Tree, is Tennessee’s state tree. It was selected as our state tree for both its historical significance and because the tulip poplar can be found from one end of the state to the other. In spring, the large flowers resemble tri-colored tulips. The tree bears no relation to tulips or poplars, however! Its closest North American relatives are actually Magnolia trees.

Historic heights

Yet another name for Tulip Poplar is Canoe Wood, as it was once commonly used to make dugout canoes by both Native Americans and colonizers. Daniel Boone brought his family west in a Tulip Poplar canoe of his own making, and the dugout canoe on display in the First People’s gallery of the Tennessee State Museum is likewise made of Tulip Poplar wood. The tree makes such splendid canoes because it’s the tallest hardwood in North America. (Currently, the record goes to a 191.9 foot tall Tulip Tree in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — pictured below at right). Three centuries ago, old-growth Tulip Poplars stretching over 200 feet were reportedly common in eastern North America, but in the average city plot or garden, you can expect your tree to mature at a (comparatively petite!) 60-90 feet.

Wildlife

Who says that Sweetbay Magnolia is the only sweet tree around Nashville?! In springtime, you can spot ruby-throated hummingbirds sipping nectar from these sky-high “tulips,” as well as bumblebees and other long-tongued bee species. Depending on the size of the tree, you may need binoculars to see the hummingbirds; you will definitely need a magnifying glass to see a bee’s long tongue! From summer to winter, the seeds of the Tulip Poplar provide a food source for many birds and small mammals, such as squirrels and quails. Tulip Poplar is also the host plant for tiger and spicebush swallowtail butterflies.

Planting

Tulip Poplars grow straight and tall, with a height of 60-90 feet and a canopy spread of 30-50 feet. They bloom in the spring and produce large, fragrant, green, yellow, and orange flowers. Fall leaf color takes on a yellow to orange hue, before the tree drops its leaves in winter. It’s a hardy species; it grows in zones 4-9, and thrives in most soil conditions, including clay. It’s also a fast grower. In the right conditions, Tulip Poplar can grow more than 24 inches per year. It should be planted in full sunlight, meaning it should get at least 6 hours of direct sunlight.

Populating neighborhoods near you!

Whether you’re in the city or the country, Tulip Poplars are everywhere in Tennessee — how many can you count on your street? At this time of year, some leaves are beginning to turn a bright yellow for fall. Learn how to get a Tulip Poplar of your own through our Neighborhood Planting Captain program, or purchase one through our friends at the Nashville Tree Conservation Corps.

All newly planted trees, regardless of what species they are or who plants them, can be counted towards the citywide goal of planting 500,000 trees by 2050. Planting season begins *so soon* — in mid-October!

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