Winter Trees and Shrubs: Tulip Tree

At first glance, a tulip and a tulip tree couldn’t be more different. One is a bulb that puts out fleshy, green leaves in the spring, topped with colorful, cup-shaped flowers, barely reaching a foot or so tall. The other is a massive, deciduous tree with a broad, straight trunk that can grow to nearly 200 feet tall. But if you can get a look at the flowers, seed heads, and even the leaves of this enormous tree, you might see a resemblance – at least in the shape of these features – to one of our most popular spring flowering geophytes.

Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) is distributed across the eastern United States and has been planted widely outside of its native range. Also commonly known as tulip poplar, yellow poplar, and whitewood, it is a member of the magnolia family and is one of two species in its genus (the other being Liriodendron chinense – a tree found mainly in China). Many (if not most) deciduous trees of North America have small, inconspicuous flowers, but tulip trees – like its close relatives, the magnolias – have relatively large, showy flowers. The trouble is actually getting to see them since, at least on mature trees, they are borne in a canopy that is considerably taller than the average human.

Tulip tree flowers are cup-shaped, yellow-green and orange, with a series of prominent stamens surrounding the carpels which are attached to a long, slender receptacle giving it a cone-shaped appearance. As the flower matures into fruits, the tulip shape of the inflorescence is maintained as the seeds with their wing-like appendages form a tight, cone-like cluster that opens as the seeds reach maturity. The wings aid in dispersal as the seeds fall from the “cone” throughout the winter.

seed head of tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

The four-lobed leaves of tulip trees also form a vague tulip shape. They are alternately arranged, bright green, and up to five or six inches long and wide, turning yellow in the fall. Two prominent, oval-shaped stipules surround the stem at the base of the petiole of each leaf. These stipules come into play when identifying the leafless twigs of tulip trees during the winter months.

leaf of tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) in late summer

The winter twigs of tulip trees are easily recognizable thanks to their duck bill shaped buds which are made up of two wine-red, violet, or greenish bud scales. The terminal buds are considerably larger and longer than the lateral buds, some of which are on little stalks. The twigs are smooth, olive-brown or red-brown, with just a few, scattered, white lenticels. Leaf scars are rounded with a dozen or so bundle scars that are either scattered or form an irregular ellipse. Pronounced stipule scars encircle the twig at the location of each leaf scar. Twigs can be cut lengthwise to reveal pale white pith that is separated by a series of diaphragms.

winter twig of tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
top right: the chambered pith of black walnut (Juglans nigra); bottom left: diaphragmed pith of tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

The bark of tulip trees can be easily confused with that of ash trees. Young bark is smooth and ash-gray to grayish green with pale, vertical cracks. As the tree matures, the cracks develop into furrows with flat-topped ridges. The ridges grow taller and more peaked, and the furrows grow deeper as the tree reaches maturity. In the book Winter Botany, William Trelease compares the mature bark of tulip trees to a series of parallel mountain ranges with deep gullies on either side.

maturing bark of tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

Perhaps even as tulips are blooming, the buds of tulip trees break to reveal their tulip-shaped, stipule bearing leaves. This makes for an interesting show. In The Book of Forest and Thicket, John Eastman describes it this way: “from terminal buds shaped like duck bills, successions of bills within bills uncurl and unfold, revealing a marvel of leaf packaging.”

More Winter Trees and Shrubs:


The photos of tulip tree were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.