Plant 147

Liriodendron tulipifera L. (Magnoliaceae)


Tulip tree

The North American tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, was one of the very first tree species to come over the Atlantic to Britain. It was introduced into British cultivation in the mid-seventeenth century and a specimen growing in London in 1688 was either brought or sent back by the intrepid plant hunter, John Tradescant the Younger. It has been grown widely in botanical collections, parks and gardens ever since.

Its native eastern range runs from Ontario in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south, although fossil records show that prior to the last ice age it once grew in Europe. Reports vary, but mature trees reputedly once reached 60 metres in height, taller than any of its fellow broadleaf trees in eastern North America. Cultivated trees in Britain do not reach such stature, but some have exceeded 30 metres in height.

Its recognised qualities as an attractive ornamental tree include: rapid growth; pyramidal form; resistance to insect and disease damage; unusual leaves and flowers; and good seasonal interest. The leaves are tulip-shaped with an indented tip and four pointed lobes, smooth and dark green above, and pale with a whitish bloom beneath. They turn a wonderful butter-yellow before falling in autumn. From April to June spectacular light green to orange-yellow flowers appear, also tulip-shaped, up to six centimetres wide. The fruit is cone-shaped and matures into woody clusters of seeds with papery wings. The bark on younger trees is grey-brown and smooth, but with age it becomes regularly fissured.

The indigenous Cherokee people used the tulip tree in a wide variety of ways, such as: a poultice of crushed leaves used for headache; an infusion of bark given for pinworms; a wood for lumber, cradles and canoes more than ten metres long; and a pulpwood for papermaking.

At Westonbirt, The National Arboretum, it is a 'trademark' or 'signature' tree within the heritage landscape, where twenty-five specimens can be found. Three of these trees have been grown from wild seed collected in Illinois, Ohio and West Virginia in 2006.

There is only one other species in the genus Liriodendron, the Chinese tulip tree (Liriodendron chinensis), and Westonbirt has two specimens grown from wild seed collected in Vietnam and Sichuan, China. Also to be found at Westonbirt is a hybrid of the two species, Liriodendron tulipifera x chinensis, a gift from the Dutch Dendrology Society during a visit in 2001.

Further reading

Moerman DE 1998. Native American ethnobotany. Timber Press.

Sternberg G with Wilson J 2004. Native trees for North American landscapes. Timber Press.

Mark Ballard