Giant of the Forest: The Splendid Tulip Poplar

Giant of the Forest: The Splendid Tulip Poplar

“I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.” — Henry David Thoreau

One of my favorite places to visit is Nathan Hale State Forest at the Nathan Hale Homestead Museum in Coventry. I am usually there two times a year to attend the Coventry Farmers’ Market on the museum grounds, and I always take time for a quick walk in the adjacent state forest.

The first 100 yards along the dirt road leading into the forest has several trees not typically seen during my forest rambles, and they are among my favorites. I’ll make a point of looking for the witch hazel and sassafras trees growing along the side of the road, but there is a particular giant that always catches my eye. The first time I saw it I had noticed several smaller tulip poplar saplings and wondered where the “mother” tree was located. It wasn’t until I emerged from the woods that I saw it tucked along the edge where open field and forest meet.

The tree is ramrod straight with a massive trunk and few horizontal branches until the upper reaches of its canopy. To this day it is the tallest tulip poplar I have seen. Unlike Thoreau, I don’t have to tramp miles through the snow to keep the appointment. I did some looking around for information about the tulip poplar and share it in this column in hopes you too will come to appreciate this forest giant.

Despite its common name, the tulip poplar tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) is neither related to tulips or true poplars, but instead is in the magnolia family. It gets its name from the tulip shaped flowers that bloom in May and June in our region. The flowers are about two inches in diameter with yellow-green petals and a splatter of orange at the base. The tree can be found in southern New England, west to the Great Lakes and south to Louisiana and Florida.

The tulip poplar is easy to identify by its large leaves of four to six inches wide, which are unlike any other in the forest. It thrives in warm weather and wet rich soil and is more common in the Southern Appalachian region of the country than in New England. It is the state tree of Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana.

Tulip poplars are an important tree in a forest ecosystem and are quick growers. The flowers, often hidden high in the crown of the tree, produce abundant pollen and nectar and are important to many pollinators, such as honeybees, native bees and hummingbirds. Tulip poplar honey is a reddish-brown color and the tree is considered a major honey plant by beekeepers.

Squirrels and songbirds rely on seeds produced by the flowers. The tree is host to several caterpillars including the tulip tree silk moth, and the tree is one of the host trees for tiger swallowtail caterpillars.

Among our American hardwood trees, the tulip poplar is the tallest, reaching 100 feet or more, and here in New England it rivals our eastern white pine for the tallest tree in the region. An interesting resource for information about older and large trees is “Connecticut’s Notable Trees,” a database and website maintained by Connecticut College with information on more than 4,000 trees. The website provides information about the 100 tallest trees in the state, with a 154-foot eastern white pine at No. 1, followed by seven other white pines of similar height. Then, at number nine, a 139-foot tulip poplar located in Windsor breaks into the list. I am not sure how tall the giant is at the Nathan Hale Forest, but my guess is it is easily more than 100 feet tall.

Though the tulip poplar is considered a hardwood, it is lighter than hickory, oak or maple and not very dense. Similar to pine, it burns hot and fast and is better used for kindling to get a fire started than as a log for steady and longer burning on cold winter nights.

Tulip poplar wood is straight grained, soft and easy to work for cabinetry. It is resistant to splitting and similar to pine in quality for woodwork and interior trim, though it does have a more porous surface that is difficult to sand smooth and is better suited to taking paint than stain. Native Americans used the massive trunks for dugout canoes.

I am always amazed at the discoveries waiting for me as I explore our region’s woodlands. I don’t see tulip poplar trees often, but when I do I make a mental note of the location and look for them when I return. I hope you’ll find time to visit Nathan Hale State Forest in Coventry and look for this magnificent tulip poplar.

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I hope you’ll join me as we care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.

Information for this column was sourced from Connecticut Notable Trees, the University of Kentucky School of Agriculture, Food and Environment, and the “Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Trees,” by George A. Petrides.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 40 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org

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