Liriodendron Identification Guide: What does a Tulip tree look like


American tulip tree

The Tulip tree is deciduous and grows in the South-eastern parts of the United States. It is known as Liriodendron Tulipifera. The Tulip tree is also commonly known as the yellow poplar, Tulip or Tulip poplar. Strictly speaking, all these names are not right, because it is neither a poplar tree nor is it a Tulip tree. The flowers of Liriodendron Tulipifera have striking similarities with the original Tulip flower. Hence it is called the Tulip tree. Otherwise, it belongs to the family of Magnolia trees. Visually the Tulip tree can be identified by its peculiar features.

What does a Tulip tree look like?

Tulip is a very tall tree that grows straight up with striking leaves and flowers in the spring.

The leaves of the Tulip tree are very striking and distinct. It is bound to catch your attention immediately when you see this tree. The leaves are bright green colored and have four lobes. It looks like the maple tree leaf, but the tip is missing entirely. A concave shape replaces the tip of the leaves. The length of the leaf varies from 5 to 8 inches and is equally broad. They are placed alternatively on the stem. In autumn, they turn into beautiful yellow golden color, and there is no foliage in the winter. The leaves of the Tulip tree are very characteristic and a great identifying factor.

Another identifying feature of the Tulip tree is the flower. The tree is endowed with beautiful and striking flowers that bloom in late spring. The flower comes out of the stem tips and is about 5 to 6cms long. It resembles the ‘Tulip’ flower and has yellow-green petals, with bright orange at the center. It is nectar-rich and a favorite of the hummingbird. Since the crown of the Tulip tree is very high, you will have to look hard to spot these flowers during the spring. They get overshadowed by the broad leaves.

tulip leaves

The bark of the Tulip tree also helps in identification. The mature Tulip tree has light grey-brown bark, which is corky in texture. It has very prominent vertical furrows running vertically along the length of the stem. These furrows or ridges, criss-cross one another to form a fascinating pattern. In the case of the Tulip tree, the top of the ridges is flat and not conical as is generally seen.  The grooves of the ridges are light or white in color.

tulip bark

The Tulip tree grows straight and tall without any bends or lower branches. The diameter of the trunk remains almost constant throughout.

The Tulip tree has no limbs till about 80% of its total height. It has a crown of foliage almost at the top of the tree. Till that height, it just grows straight.

So this is how the tree looks, and it can be identified with the above features if you come across one. The most unique and striking are the leaves of the Tulip tree, which you just cannot miss.

How big do Tulip trees get?

tulip tree height

The Tulip tree is a very tall variety of trees with an average height of about 100 feet. Some Tulip trees have attained a height of 190 feet.

In the forest and natural surroundings, the Tulip tree grows really tall. Else, they have a height of about 70 -100 feet. The width of the foliage is around 40 feet. As a thumb rule, the width of the crown is considered to be half the height of the tree.

Being extraordinarily tall trees, the canopies of the tree towers above all other surrounding trees. It is good to get ample sunlight. But the canopies have to bear the fury of wind and storm, all alone. The surrounding trees being shorter cannot break the wind. The result is the breakage of limbs situated at the highest level. The broken branches falling from that height can be hazardous. Limb breakages are very common with old Tulip trees, which have lost flexibility.

Ohio State University’s advice is to plant Tulip trees away from houses and power lines. It is best suited to plants in open spaces, parks, and forests.

How fast do Tulip trees grow?    

The Tulip tree can register a growth of 2 to 3 feet per year depending upon its age and growing conditions.

The growth rate of the Tulip tree is moderate to high. The least that it grows in a year is more than  2 feet when young. And subsequently, once the tree stabilizes,  the growth rate dwindles to around 13 to 24 inches maximum in a year.  The local weather and soil conditions also have an essential bearing on the growth rate.

On average, the Tulip tree zooms up to 20 feet in 10 years. That gives the average growth rate as 2 feet/year. Medium to fast-growing trees is not able to build up the density to wood to the desired level. The nutrition and the life energy get diverted to build the height, rather than the strength.

The density of the Tulip tree timber is just within the acceptable limits of using it for fencing, siding, flooring and furniture. The straight and even-sized trunk weighs heavily in favour of its use in making long planks of wood. But the weakness of the wood is responsible for frequent dropping of the limbs.

How many years does it take for a Tulip tree to bloom?        

tulip bloom

It generally takes 15 -20 years for the Tulip tree to blossom for the first time.

In about 20 years the Tulip tree grows around 20 feet in height, and many people worry about the blossoms. The beautiful flowers are one of the main attractions of planting Tulip trees. While the fact is not known, you may expect it to bloom earlier. There is no reason to worry as the Tulip will bloom in around 20 years.

It would help if you enquired of the age of the plant when you get it to grow. That will give you an approximate indication of the first bloom. Sunny locations of the plant promote quicker blooming, while the Tulip planted in shades will take a longer time to grow flowers. The flowers bloom in the late spring season.

How often does a Tulip tree flower?

Once the flowering begins, the Tulip tree will flower every year in the late spring. The flowering continues for hundreds of years after that. (The average life of the Tulip tree is 300 – 350 years.)

The only exception is, in case of heavy snowfall or severe winter, where the flower will not appear in the coming spring. You can expect blooms only in the next year in such a situation.

As a routine, flowers appear in May – June. The bloom adds beauty to the Tulip tree and remains for about a month. Flowers of the Tulip tree self-pollinate, as the male and female parts exist simultaneously in the same flower. Botanically such a flower is known as the perfect flower.  The beautiful yellow-green flowers with orange bands are cup-shaped like the famous ‘Tulips’.                   

Where do Tulip trees grow best?

The USDA finds it hardy in zones 4 through 9. They grow very well in the South-eastern parts of the USA.

The Tulip tree desires moist but well-drained soil. It adapts well to clay, sandy, or loamy soil. The soil can be acidic as well as alkaline, but it should be nutrient-rich. However, avoid planting the Tulip tree in dry soil. Well-drained soil is fine, but because of the deep taproots, it cannot sustain in a dry land. For the same reason, do not plant the Tulip tree in shallow soil as the roots need to go deep.

For optimum growth, it needs full sunlight for at least 5 to 6 hours a day. Partial shade may also work. But limited sunlight weakens the branches and the overall health of the tree deteriorates. So the preferable site would be with good to excellent sunlight.

The young trees need frequent watering and nutrition. You can cover the soil above the roots, to preserve the moisture, mainly when the tree is young. If all the growth conditions are favourable, it will reach a height of around 100 feet and stay there for about 300 years. However, with average growth conditions it can survive for around 150 years. And even the height would be less.

Do Tulip trees have invasive roots?      

tulip root

The surface roots of the Tulip tree can damage the driveway, walkways, or the roads if they are close to the tree.

It has a tap root system. Roots go as deep as the height and surface roots spread as much as the width of the crown. For example, if the Tulip tree has a height of  80 feet and the crown is 30 feet wide, then the main root will go down straight at least for 80 feet, and the surface roots will spread around the tree in a radius of 15 feet (effectively a spread of 30 feet).

The function of the roots is to seek water and nutrients, and that is what it does. If the water is insufficient or if there is a lack of nutrition, the surface roots of the Tulip will spread far and wide in search of water. In that process, if it encounters any obstruction in the form of road, walkway or some other construction, it will cause damage.

But if its requirement of water is taken care of, the roots will not spread and damage anything ( if the tree maintains a safe distance from the constructions) The Tulip tree does not grow extensive lateral roots. According to the University of Florida IFAS section, it is for this reason that the Tulip tree is not invasive.

If you have planted a Tulip tree, ensure that it gets sufficient water. The soil should be moist and not drenched. In that case, the root of the Tulip has no reason to grow beyond their usual spread.

But in case of water scarcity, the roots may get aggressive and cause damage to the constructed property. In case the roots have gone wild to damage property, consult the root specialist. They advise and execute strategies to contain the root damage, either by cutting the roots or diverting them. They will also guide you in maintaining proper water content of the soil to ensure stress-free and healthy growth of the Tulip tree.

How much space does a Tulip tree need?

A 40 feet clearance for the Tulip tree is good for its healthy growth and development. Tulip trees need full sun for its growth. Lack of sun may stunt and weaken the tree. So that much aerial opening above the tree is necessary to ensure 4 -6 hours of sunshine directly on the tree when it is small.

Secondly, as the tree grows and matures the width of the crown will increase to about 30 -40 ft. With that size of the crown, a gap of at least 40 feet is a must to prevent rubbing of the crown during high winds.

The said gap should be maintained between two trees to provide sufficient sunshine, air and prevent damage to the crown.

As suggested above, the Tulip is most suitable to be planted in huge open space, and forest. So maintaining that kind of gap should not pose any problems. The roots will also have sufficient space to grow and hold on to the soil for water and nutrition.

Initially, the gap may look very wide, but as the tree grows, the gap will get filled up. The trunk of the Tulip tree grows up to 12 feet in diameter.

Do Tulips trees like the direct sun?

Tulip tree desires full sun for most of the day. Sunnier the better for the Tulip tree. It can also adjust with partial shade. However, the full shade will stunt the growth of the Tulip tree. The tree will grow weak and will not survive for long.

Before planting the tree, ensure that no big trees or building cast their shade on the Tulip plantation for too long.               

Are Tulip trees easy to grow?

If you know the suitable conditions for the healthy growth of Tulip and can manage those conditions, then growing Tulip should not be a problem. You can get the Tulip tree sapling from the nursery, or you can also grow it using the seeds or the cuttings, on your own.

Tulip needs good sunlight and well-drained soil. It needs water but no waterlogging. You should be able to provide sufficient water, as Tulip is not drought resistant.

Tulip would need frequent pruning to get rid of broken, dry and damaged branches. Pruning should, however, be done in late winter or early spring.

The Tulip tree is nutrient-sensitive and will need proper fertilizer at the beginning of the spring. You will have to protect the tree from canker and poplar weevils by using appropriate fungicide and horticulture oil, respectively.

The Tulip tree is messy when the leaves and flowers shed. It creates a huge litter. The sap from the tree is also very sticky and difficult to clean. This tree needs frequent attention and effort to keep the surrounding clean.

If you think you can handle all this and a little more, then growing Tulip should not be a problem. You can enjoy the stunning annual blooms of the Tulip flowers.

Growing the Tulip tree using seeds

The fruit of the Tulip tree is a cone-shaped structure that has lots of winged seed. In the fall season, pick these fruits as they turn beige in color. If you do not pluck the fruit in good time, it will dry out and burst, and all seeds will fly off.

Keep the fruit in a dry place for a few days. The seeds will get separated from the fruit. Store the seeds in airtight containers, if you wish to plant the trees later. To plant it immediately stratify the seeds. Stratification is a process of preparing the seeds for planting, by stimulating the conditions similar to the actual plantation. Stratify the Tulip tree seeds by keeping it in a cold and moist place for 60 – 90 days. Then plant the seeds in small containers.

Growing the tree with cuttings

During the fall, select a branch that looks healthy and is at least 18 inches long. Cut this branch outside of the collar, where it is connected to the trunk. Immediately dip this branch with the cut portion down in a water solution of the rooting hormone. Make the mixture as per the instructions provided by the manufacturer. Let the branch stand in this rooting mixture for some time. In the meanwhile prepare a container with good well aired, nutrient-enriched soil. Bury the cutting in this soil at least 8 inches deep. Do not compact the soil too much. Ensure that the cutting is in the center of the container. Cover the planted cutting with some transparent cover to retain the moisture. Place this container in a well-protected area, with access to sunlight. In about a month the cutting will develop roots and will be ready to plant in the ground.

The easiest way to grow the Tulip tree is to get it in a container from the nursery. And transplant it in your yard as per the instructions. With some experience, growing from cuttings and seeds will also come easy.

Lindsey Glenn

I've been learning about gardening since 2015, helping friends and family to grow their trees. I am passionate about trees and love sharing everything I learn about them.

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