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Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

A Gardening Journal

Tulip Tree

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Tulip Tree's large flowers are unique among hardy trees.  Too bad you almost never see them.

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Tulip Tree's large flowers are unique among hardy trees.  Too bad you almost never see them.  It's not that there aren't Tulip Trees around, though.  It's because the trees don't start flowering until they're long out of grade school, by which time they're often so tall that the flowers are only visible by helicopter.  Also, the flowers don't appear until after the tree's foliage is fully emerged.

 

Goodness knows it isn't that the flowers themselves are shrinking violets:  Three to four inches across, with a riveting ring of orange flames on the petals, then a ruff of thick and stiff stamens, like so many match sticks, surrounding the conical pistil.  Cool!  But because the flowers are at the tips of branches that, usually, don't emerge from the trunk until sixty feet or more off the ground, who would ever know?

 

Here's the monster at my back garden.  At the very bottom of the picture, you can see the second-story window of our neighbor's house.  Tulip Trees are among the very tallest tree you can grow; trees taller than 150 feet aren't unusual, and this one seems that height and more.

 

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But this individual has retained some branches lower down.  One was even nodding over the back fence just to the right of my compost shed.

 

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And this May, I finally noticed that it was in voluptuous bloom.  For once, I could look the flowers right in the eye.  The "Tulip Tree" name finally made sense.

 

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A troop of small black insects has chosen this flower for a warm-weather picnic.  No surprise there: Tulip Tree flowers are heavy nectar producers—probably a necessity to motivate pollinating insects to forage for food so far above their usual ground-level sources of perennials, shrubs, and small ornamental trees.

 

Tulip Trees are unusual even in needing insect pollinators: Most of the large hardy trees—i.e., anything you'd call a "shade tree"—bloom much earlier in the season, before their leaves have emerged.  They just release their pollen right into the air; from on high it's entirely likely to be wafted far and wide by the slightest breeze, so has a good chance of landing on another of that tree's blossoms long before it would hit the ground. 

 

But the Tulip Trees' large leaves would block too much of the breezes to make wind-pollination practical.  Worse, the blossoms are marooned high on branches that are (usually) fifty, a hundred, even a hundred and fifty feet higher than most insect pollinators' normal daily foraging.  No wonder the flowers are so graphic and colorful, and provide such a big meal to the insects that do make the high-altitude visit.  Then they'll remember to come back—and to bring their friends.

 

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Even the flower buds are a show.  They're large just like the flowers of this tree's first cousins, the magnolias.  With a deeper green tip emerging from the light-green protective scales, something big is clearly imminent. 

 

Now if only a truly dwarf Tulip Tree would appear:  Imagine these buds, flowers, and leaves on a bush four feet tall and five wide!

 

 

Here's how to grow this immense and exciting tree:

Latin Name

Liriodendron tulipifera

Common Name

Tulip Tree

Family

Magnoliaceae, the Magnolia family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous tree.

Hardiness

Zones 4/5 - 9

Habit

An immense shade tree with a characteristic ramrod-straight vertical trunk, often branchless for sixty feet and more on mature specimens.

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

Fifteen feet tall or more, six feet wide or more.  At maturity one of the tallest native trees East of the Mississippi, with some individuals approaching 170 feet tall.

Texture

The large and uniquely squared-off leaves make a lush and somewhat tropical foliage canopy, easily identified even at a distance because of the tree's great height at maturity. 

 

Out of leaf in cold weather, the enormous height, the massive trunk, and the sparse but thick branches make Tulips, with Plane Trees, beeches, and oaks, the apogee of humbling creatures in the landscape.  Humans and their houses are to Tulip Trees as beagles and their kennels are to humans.

Grown for

its striking mature size, unique foliage, and that it's a native tree you can be particularly proud of and in awe of.

 

the excellent yellow Fall foliage.

Flowering season

Mid Spring: Late May in Rhode Island.

Culture

Any regular  soil.  Full sun.  Not drought-tolerant, though.  As with plane trees, every bit its equal in overall bulk and "mammothity" of limb, this is a tree for what farmers call "rich bottom-land," the flat and low-lying open areas in the flood plains of rivers.  These provide just the conditions the tree thrives in:  Deep soil, ready access to the ground-water, and, thanks to the periodic flooding, the absence of many of the sun-hungry but drainage-demanding tree species that could shade out the tulip tree in a more generic forest environment.  That said, plane trees are the ones that are delirious right along the river bank.  Tulip trees are happier farther back, on slightly higher ground.

How to handle it

This species is far too tall and massive for normal half-acre suburbia.  Or for street trees (where it wouldn't have enough water in such a small planting area anyway).  It's only appropriate for multi-acre settings: meadows, parks, cemeteries, the grounds of big civic buildings.  If you actually do have the room for the immensity all Tulip Trees would become,  plant a small starter plant as the centerpiece of your largest-possible stretch of open ground, water it attentively that first Summer, and then just let it burgeon for the next century or two.

 

And if you have a lot of room, plant a whole grove of Tulips.  Thirty or forty feet apart at the minimum.  They'll be even taller and will have even higher trunks.  It will be a cathedral built of trees, not stone, and whatever your spiritual leanings, a deeply religious experience.

 

You might be able to get spiritual from on-high too: If your property has a really steep cliff—80 feet say—with plenty of meadow at the bottom (an unlikely combination, true), you could plant tulip trees at the bottom, and then, at the top, you'd be high enough to see the blossoms up in the bulk of the canopy.  This strategy would also work if, oh, your property just happened to have a really high bridge on it.  In either case, plant the Tulips, let them grow for fifty years, and then, from beyond the grave, contact me (who will also be in-the-ground then) so I can, at least in spirit, visit your site and congratulate you on your wisdom.

 

Tulip Trees have sparse roots, like magnolias, so transplant best when small.  The roots don't "grab" well enough to hold together the greater weight of larger root balls. 

 

Tulips usually don't need pruning.  (Thank goodness: the limbs can be higher than arborists' cherry pickers, or even their tallest cranes.) 

Downsides

Generally untroubled by diseases or pests, especially when growing in suitable ground and with truly full sun.

 

The flowers mature to distinctive and somewhat cone-like seed heads, which are a bit of a mess when they fall.  Not the tree, then, near golf-course greens.

 

The wood can be brittle, and the trees can lose branches after heavy storms.  So never plant a Tulip anywhere near a building.  That said, in the fifteen years we've lived in Hopkinton, I have never been aware of branches crashing down after a storm from the huge specimen Tulip overhanging my property.  And there are been storms as stormy as they get.

 

The trees can self-seed diligently.

Variants

Given the immensity of the species itself, some comparative dwarves, such as 'Ardis' are really welcome.  But even they can grow to thirty feet.  There are a couple of truly exciting variegated (but also full-sized) cultivars too, as well as odd-balls with ever more distinctive foliage shapes than the species.  Best of all, perhaps, is the Chinese Tulip Tree, Liriodendron chinense, that I'll rhapsodize over soon.

Availability

On-line as well as retail.

Propagation

The species self-seeds, and grows so fast you could actually consider growing it from seed.  The weird and wonderful cultivars are grafted.

Native habitat

Eastern US and Southern Canada.

 
 
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