Blog Post By Jim Woodworth

Tree of the Month: Tulip Tree

This is a special edition of our Tree of the Month feature – our Tree Planting Director, Jim Woodworth, wrote this for us because it’s his absolute favorite tree! Get a look inside his appreciation for the amazing tulip tree:

“Lilly tree bearing tulips” is apparently what Linnaeus meant when he described the tulip tree as Liriodendron tulipifera, and we have been calling it all kinds of things before and after: tulip poplar, yellow poplar, white wood, fiddle tree. It is not a poplar, but it is in the magnolia family.

I learned a lot in forestry school, but two tree facts that stuck best in my head were related to our big trees: sycamore and tulip tree. The sycamore is the tree in the northeastern United States with the widest girth (the biggest trunk) and the tulip tree is the tallest. Sure, we can’t compete with the redwoods and sequoias of the Pacific northwest, but we’ve still got our share of big trees around here!

The tulip tree is actually the tallest deciduous tree in North America, and it is the only species of its genus on this continent. There is one other species in Asia, Liriodendron chinensis. The tulip tree is also one of our fastest growing trees here in the Washington, D.C. region. Often nestled in a little creek or stream valley, they grow quickly and often fool you into looking older than they really are. But their grandeur and superlative qualities belie their finer points. I’m quite fond of their simple, but peculiar blunt-tipped, four-lobed leaves, and I especially love the beautiful greenish-yellow with orange flowers.

I often challenge folks to find new ways to appreciate their trees year round. For me, I rediscovered the tulip tree several times over in my continuing education and life-long work with trees, in very different circumstances. Once was stomping through the bitter cold of winter, crunching through an icy crust of old and frozen snow. It was a quiet, calm winter morning, with winter shadows long through the brown and gray trunks of trees, indistinguishable at first glance. But a little cold breeze picked up, and several large tulip trees, with their open brown seed cones, rained down hundreds of their wind-dispersed samara-like seeds, twinkling through the twigs and branches and skittering across the frozen landscape.

If you enjoy your trees while out walking around in the District, there are two locations where you can be sure to pay more attention to our majestic tulip trees: the first requires that you head south on 16th Street NW and after crossing the hustle and bustle of U Street, take a break from the people watching and look up to see the view of the White House. This stretch of 16th Street NW is unique in its prominent landscape design choice, with its view-shed framed by the towering, majestic tulip tree, planted just inside the sidewalk, in the front yards or “public parking” space of those properties that line the road. It’s a design strategy that merits application in other situations, when our street trees are either choked out by small soil volumes of the tree box, or are “reduction pruned” for overhead wire clearance—let’s plant big trees in front yards where there is space to allow them to reach their full potential.

The second spot asks that you cross Duke Ellington Memorial Bridge on a hot, humid, muggy D.C. evening between Adams Morgan and Woodley Park, and peer out over Rock Creek Park. You can see the tulip trees reaching for the sky from the park land below and enjoy a rare view looking down on their wonderful and seldom-seen flowers.

The tulip tree is the state tree for Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee, and a couple years back, we had the pleasure of planting one in St. Paul’s Rock Creek Church Parish in memory of my friend Nick, from Kentucky.

It’s also an important timber tree, known to have some resistance to termites, and has an American Indian history of being utilized for dug-out canoes. It is also considered a major honey plan. We frequently plant them as specimen shade trees in park and other settings where they will have plenty of space to reach their mature size. However, there are a couple smaller-stature cultivated varieties, including the “Little Volunteer” which we have planted at Delaware Circle, and hope to promote for smaller yard plantings.

No matter where you choose to see these incredible trees, be sure to soak in their presence – and bring a camera, to help you remember until the next time you cross paths. Check out our tree species map below for other locations throughout the District:

View map full screen.

Flickr credit: nipplerings72.

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