Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Tulip Tree
Nature Bulletin No. 303-A   April 20, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

One of the most magnificent and valuable trees in North America is the Tulip Tree -- the state tree of Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. The paper or canoe birch of the north woods, because of its white bark and dainty leaves, is often called "the lady of the forest", but the "gentleman of the forest" -- and a gentleman of distinction -- is the tulip tree. It is the tallest of our native broad-leaved trees and, with the exception of the sycamore, the largest. Its clean straight trunk, often free from any branches for two-thirds of its total height, towers aloft like a Corinthian column. In the spring it has showy tulip-like flowers. Every feature of this tree is unusual.

Many millions of years ago when the earth's climate was warmer, the tulip tree and at least 15 close relatives were widely distributed over the northern hemisphere as far as what we call the Arctic Zone. Today, except for a similar species in central China, it is found only in southern Ontario and the eastern third of the United States from the Gulf coast to Rhode Island and southern Michigan. There are only a few west of the Mississippi, and in Illinois it is found mostly in the southern counties along "the Big River", the Ohio and the Wabash. There are some big tulip trees in Turkey Run and Spring Mill State Parks in Indiana. In Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, where the greatest stands remain, many attain diameters of 3 or 4 feet and heights up to 150 feet. There are records of tulip trees that were 200 feet tall and more than 12 feet in diameter but, except possibly in the Great Smoky Mountains, no such giants exist today.

The tulip tree requires deep rich soil, moist but well-drained, and much of the finest timber was cut by pioneers because it was sure evidence of good farmland. It was called the "canoe tree" and used for their dugout canoes, or to help float rafts of heavy oak and walnut logs, because its wood is very light and very soft. The clear white sapwood and the greenish-yellow heartwood are easily worked or bent, do not shrink or warp much, take nails without splitting, take paint or glue better than any other native tree, and are very durable. Consequently, "Whitewood", as it was also known, had innumerable uses: joints, rafters, weather boarding and shingles in colonial homes; log cabins; dishes and bawls; buckets, mangers and watering troughs; wooden pumps and pipes, tobacco hogsheads with hoops of oak or hickory; and, later, wagon beds and the bodies of carriages and buggies.

Today, yellow poplar or tulip poplar, as it is known in the lumber trade, still has many, many uses but it is high-priced and scarce. It is not a poplar, although its leaves have long slender petioles and flutter in the breeze. It is a member of the Magnolia Family. The Large Tulip-like flowers have 3 drooping sepals and six erect creamy petals that form "a golden chalice splashed with orange at the base" These are followed by cone-like fruits, 2 to 3 inches long but not red like the magnolia, each containing a number of overlapping winged seeds. After the seeds fall, the central spike of the cone, with a cup-shaped ring at the bottom, stands upright on the twig like a candleholder -- all winter.

The large reddish winter buds, flattened and "duck-billed", are unique. The leaves, 4 to 6 inches long and wide, are also distinctive. They turn bright yellow in autumn and have 4 pointed lobes as a rule, but the upper two give the end of the leaf a flat or a saddle-shaped appearance. Because it requires such good soil and is subject to storm damage, the tulip tree is not recommended for city streets but its ornamental appearance makes it desirable for parks and suburban homes.

Like most Hoosiers, it feels more at home in the country.

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