National Geographic : 1957 Oct
Tulip Tree Crowns the Forest with Flowers (State Tree of Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee) THE majestic tulip tree, or Liriodendron tulipifera, meaning "tulip-bearing lily tree," graces our woodlands under many a misnomer. It is related to neither tulips nor lilies, but rather to magnolias, although its colorful, cup-shaped flowers somewhat resemble tulips. Moreover, though the tulip tree is widely known as tulip poplar or yellow poplar, it is not a poplar. That name is due chiefly to its soft, poplarlike wood, and perhaps also to the fact that its broad leaves dance in the slightest breeze as true poplar leaves do. In beauty, however, the tulip tree matches its melodious Latin name, and it can in fact provide as much sweetness as any flower. Under ideal conditions-in rich, moist soil along a stream, for example-it is unexcelled as a honey plant. An average 20-year-old tree may yield some eight pounds of nectar. Bees can turn this into four pounds of dark amber honey, more strongly flavored than most honeys. Liriodendron is of ancient lineage. It was common in Europe before the Ice Age and flourished particularly in the Upper Creta ceous Period, the Age of Reptiles. In the United States the tulip tree is rarely found west of the Mississippi. One exception is northeastern Arkansas; hence the old name "Poplar Ridge" (now Crowleys Ridge) for that part of the State. Standing in the open, the tulip tree spreads its limbs quite close to the ground (left). But in forests of sweet gum, basswood, maple, - Settlers Fashioned Rafts and Cabins from the Majestic Tulip Tree Among American hardwoods, the tulip tree ranks as the giant in height. It may reach 190 feet. Indians hewed dugouts from the tall, straight trunk. Young Abe Lincoln must have split many a rail from tulipwood. Cup-shaped, tuliplike flowers appear in late May and early June. A single blossom may yield a spoonful of nectar. Dark-green, glossy leaves, unlike those of any other American tree, are 5 or 6 inches long on slender stalks of equal length. In autumn they turn bright yellow. Mature bark is scaly and corrugated; its thinness makes the tree susceptible to fire damage. + Fruits emerge as conelike clusters about 2% to 3 inches long, each made up of many seeds. © National Geographic Society Paintings by National Geographic Artist Walter A. Weber 523 and oak, this fast-growing tree will push its branches up high into the sunlight. Its trunk rises straight and bare as a Greek col umn for 40 to 80 feet, and is topped by a cone-shaped crown of greenery; the flowers, with their petals colored light green on the outside, can hardly be seen from the ground. Tulip-tree seeds have flattened wings and thus are easily carried off by the wind. Cleaned seed is so light that about 14,000 are required to make one pound. The wood is straight-grained and easy to work and glue. It takes a high polish and holds stain, paint, or enamel extremely well. It shrinks and its nail-holding capacity is low, but it won't readily split or warp. Heartwood Turns Rainbow Hues The sapwood, frequently a creamy white and called whitewood, was once much in demand for carriage and wagon building. Oliver Wendell Holmes put it into his "Won derful One-Hoss Shay": "The panels of white wood, that cuts like cheese, but lasts like iron for things like these." The brown heartwood most often has a yellowish, greenish, or pink ish tinge, but sometimes turns blue, purple, lavender, or golden yellow. Tulipwood today goes into veneers, ply wood, wall paneling, and furniture, especially drawer bottoms; into musical instruments, boxes, radio and television cabinets, crates, and excelsior. It is ideal for turnery and also for hat blocks, partly because it does not ab sorb moisture during the steaming process.