Tulip Trees: Tiptoe Through the Fall Foliage

What They Are, How to Grow Them

Tulip Tree

Katja Schulz/Getty Images

Tulip trees are fall-foliage stars that offer other desirable qualities, as well. They do have some drawbacks, though, and your decision of whether or not to grow one hinges partly on the nature of your yard (and where you would locate the tree in your yard). Drill down into the pros and cons to find out if tulip trees are right for your landscape.

Botany of Tulip Trees

Plant taxonomy classifies the tulip trees covered here as Liriodendron tulipifera. There is also a species known as L. chinense that is native to East Asia. L. tulipifera plants are deciduous trees.

Tulip Trees Not the Same as Magnolias, Poplars

For their common name, you will also find "tulip poplar" and "yellow poplar," perhaps because their leaves shake in the breeze as do those of poplars (you have probably heard of "quaking" aspens, known botanically as Populus tremuloides). But they are not in the Populus genus at all and therefore aren't true poplars. They belong to the magnolia family, making them close relatives of magnolia trees (Magnolia spp.). Family relations aside, Liriodendron and Magnolia are two different genera.

Characteristics of These Trees, Best Growing Conditions

Indigenous to eastern North America, tulip trees reach 90 feet or more in height. They are tall and straight-trunked, with a canopy width somewhat less than 1/2 their height at maturity. The branches begin rather far up the trunk and are often arranged symmetrically.

Tulip trees can be identified by the shape of their leaves: The concave shape of the tips of the leaves (or where you would expect a typical tip) suggests that someone came along and took a bite out of them. Their leaves provide yellow to golden fall foliage.

The flowers that give tulip trees their name are yellowish-green, with a touch of orange on the outside. Bloom time is late spring. The cone-like fruit that they leave behind also offers some ornamental value.

Grow tulip trees in full sun to partial sun, in a deep, well-drained soil amended with plenty of compost. Tulip trees are best grown in planting zones 5 to 9.

Landscaping Uses, Cultivars and Varieties

These giants function in the landscape as fast-growing shade trees with fall-foliage interest. As is often the case (Pyrus calleryana Bradford being a notorious example), the trade-off for their fast growth is relatively weak limbs, which can create a hazard in storms.

Their showy flowers make them somewhat unusual among really tall shade trees in Northern regions. But the Ohio State University (OSU) Extension notes that "often the tree does not flower until it reaches at least 15 years of age, and even then only sparsely in the uppermost reaches of the tree, making the upright-held flowers more difficult to notice and appreciate," adding that "older trees flower heavily and their lowermost branches become pendulous, allowing for visualization of the beautiful flowers up-close."

Michael Dirr lists available cultivars and varieties (Dirr's Encyclopedia of Trees & Shrubs, Page 454). Here are some that he mentions; noteworthy features appear in parentheses:

  • Ardis (only 30 feet tall)
  • Aureomarginatum (variegated leaves)
  • Fastigiatum (a columnar form that Dirr compares to Lombardy poplar)
  • Tennessee Gold (a yellow-leaved cultivar)

Warnings

Due to the following facts, some people may judge tulip trees best suited to large properties, where homeowners are fostering woodland gardens, perhaps:

Plant Care, Wildlife Attracted by Tulip Trees

According to the OSU Extension, the tulip tree "is extremely sensitive to being transplanted in the Autumn." The same source recommends that, should it be necessary, nonetheless, to transplant in fall, you should take extra pains "to amend the soil, fertilize, water thoroughly, mulch adequately, and avoid Winter salt spray."

Hummingbirds are drawn to the nectar in the flowers, while bobwhites, rabbits, squirrels, and other animals feed on the seed.

Origin of the Names and Avoiding Confusion

It is not entirely clear that the scientific name of Liriodendron tulipifera alludes to the same features that the common name does. Composed of the Greek words for "lily" and "tree," the genus name, Liriodendron suggests that the flowers resemble lilies, not tulips. Considering that we commonly call these giants "tulip trees," the species name of tulipifera may carry more weight: tulipifera is Latin for tulip-bearing, apparently referring to the flowers' appearance. Even the leaves could also pass for two-dimensional representations of opened tulips.

Do not confuse American tulip trees with the unrelated African tulip trees, Spathodea campanulata. Whereas the latter is a tropical plant known for its flowers, the former is a plant of the temperate zones valued as a fall-foliage tree.