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Tree 31: Tulip Tree

Latin name: Liriodendron Tulipifera
Family: Magnoliaceaea
Origin: Eastern North America, introduced to Britain in the 17th Century
Height: 25-30 metres but some examples over 40 metres tall have been found in North America
Lifespan: up to 500 years or more in optimal conditions
Autumn leaf loss: Deciduous
Gender Type: Monoecious (Male and female flowers on same tree)

In the British Isles, the tulip tree is often found in large gardens and in parkland. A sign in front of one specimen in Esher, Surrey, tells us ‘this was the first imported from Virginia 1685’. It grows well in acidic, loamy, moist, sandy and well drained soils; it tolerates drought and is resistant to air-borne pollution in urban plantings.

The tulip tree is so named because of the large yellow and orange tulip- shaped flower heads in late spring; these are produced once the tree is about 25 years old. In winter, you can see the cup-like remains of the flowers, each with a distinctive spike that carried its seeds. The ridged, grey trunk is usually straight with a canopy of leaves at the top (tulip trees tend to grow taller when surrounded by other trees, as it searches for light).

This tree can be easily identified from its leaves which usually have just four lobes and are either straight across at the top or form a shallow notch. The leaves turn golden-yellow in Autumn. It is an extremely messy tree, shedding sap shortly after blossoming.

In North America, its pale, straight-grained wood is prized for making furniture, musical instruments, and wood veneer.

There are several different common names for this tree in North America, including ‘Canoewood’, originating from the practice of many North American tribes of using Tulip tree trunks for making large dug-out canoes. A description in 1612 by an English settler claims these canoes were 40-50 feet (12-15 metres) long and could carry 40 passengers.