What Tree? Tulip

Tulip (Liriodendron tulipifera)

This non-native species was introduced to the UK from eastern USA by John Tradescant the Younger in the 17th century.  Historically, American Indians utilised multiple parts of the tree; leaves for medicine, wood for canoes and pulpwood for paper. Today, the timber is more commonly used for household interiors or in organ making, where a stable but easily workable timber is required.

The name Liriodendron is comprised of the Greek words ‘lirion’ which means lily, and ‘dendron’, which means tree. This comparison to the flower of the lily culminated in the scientific naming of this genus, although the common and species name reflects a closer similarity of the trees flowers and leaves with that of a tulip (Tulip and tulipifera).

Within the UK this tree is usually associated with planting in public parks, car parks or with private collections of trees and is not generally planted for its timber properties. The tree is often selected for its rapid growth and distinct aesthetic value in both summer and autumn. Due to its tolerance of pollution and ability to establish in a range of soil conditions it has become more prevalent within urban areas. We even have several within the business park where our office is located.

Interestingly, the tulip tree won the recent Urban Tree World Cup (hosted by the Arboricultural Association here). While the competition is just for fun, this further demonstrates its popularity as a versatile species among both arboricultural and landscape professionals as well as members of the public.

 

Appearance and Identification

Tulip trees are generally large in maturity (up to 30m tall in the UK) and have a recognisable form of upper branches sweeping in the same direction.

Identification of this tree is easiest in spring-summer where the tree exhibits distinctively shaped leaves which are often considered to be attractively four-lobed and can be loosely described as a similar shape to that of a saddle. In summer the tree adorns orange and green tulip-shaped flowers, from which its common namesake originated.

The scent of the flowers has been described as similar to that of cucumber.

 

During autumn leaves turn a buttery-yellow/gold to rust orange providing a striking vista and characteristic autumnal colour.

During winter, the best method of identifying this tree is through its distinct form, as well as purple buds which are slightly flattened. Distinct leaf scars along twigs are also a tell-tale sign, but can be confused with other species with the same characteristics (i.e. horse chestnut, tree of heaven, walnut etc.). Unfortunately, the bark is smooth and grey when young, becoming roughly furrowed and grey-brown in maturity, which can often be mistaken for other species and therefore checking the buds too is always recommended.

The Chinese tulip tree (Liriodendron chinense) has many similarities but is far rarer. If unsure look for leaves with deeper and rounded lobes. They also have slightly larger leaves than their counterpart. The flowers differ somewhat in that they are often smaller and have a green exterior with a yellow interior. The tree also exhibits a slightly different form and is generally a medium-sized tree in maturity, rather than large.

Propagation & Control

Tulip trees are not particularly shade tolerant and while they can endure a range of soils, they benefit from deep fertile soil to ensure establishment and longevity. This species is relatively hardy, with few significant pest and diseases that threaten it in the UK. This again strengthens its use in urban areas to establish a sustainable and resilient tree stock.

Source and reference materials

Information detailed in this post has been obtained from the author’s own knowledge and photographic library where possible.  Additional sources of information and photographs include:

More, D & White, J. (2013). Illustrated trees of Britain and Europe. Domino.

Van den Berk, B.V. (2004). Van den Bek on Trees. Van den Berk Nurseries

Images

Oxford Plants – https://herbaria.plants.ox.ac.uk/bol/plants400/Profiles/KL/Liriodendron

Leamington in Bloom – https://leamingtoninbloom.co.uk/tulip-tree/

Green Street Treecare – https://greenstreettree.com/chinese-tulip-tree-meets-his-cousin-after-million-year-separation/