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What is a Tulip Tree? (2 Types and Botanical Characteristics)

Here is everything you need to know about Tulip Trees, its two different types, the many characteristics, where it grows, and how to utilize the tree.

A tulip tree with autumn leaves that make it stand out.

Could you imagine a green giant adorned in a crown of tulips? That’s essentially what we’re looking at when we consider a tulip tree. Although they don’t actually grow tulips, they grow flowers that are strikingly similar.

One of the tallest and sturdiest trees known within the collection of American hardwood forests, the tulip tree comes with many interesting details and surprises. Rolling right along with the celebration of trees, we have the article 101 Types of Trees from around the world to get curious, and a whole series describing each one.

So buckle up buttercup (or tulipcup), as we explore the lives of tulip trees! Did you know that the state tree of Indiana is the tulip tree? See! We’re already learning so many cool things.

Related: Southern Magnolia Tree | Sweetbay Magnolia Tree | Mountain Magnolia Tree | Lily Magnolia Tree | Types of Magnolias

Liriodendron Tulipifera & Liriodendron Chinense

Today we’re going to cover two species of the liriodendron; liriodendron tulipifera, and liriodendron chinense. Both of these deciduous trees are part of the magnoliaceae (magnolia) family and get their name because of the large and colorful flowers that come about in the spring. As you may have guessed, they resemble tulips. Their name comes from Greek terminology, liriodendron meaning “lilytree”, and tulipifera meaning “bringing forth tulips”. Both a beautiful flowering tree, they will never disappoint when it comes to fall color, and they both make for an incredible shade tree.

2 Types of Tulip Trees

1. The American Tulip Tree – liriodendron tulipifera

Like more other trees, the American tulip tree goes by several names: tulip poplar tree, yellow poplar tree(oddly enough, this tree doesn’t have any relation to poplar trees), or saddle leaf tree. The wood from American tulip trees is referred to as either canoewood, or white wood.

These sturdy, tall, striking, and elegant trees are known to live up to 500 years old!

What does the American Tulip Tree Look Like?

This variety of tulip tree is one of the tallest trees in North American hardwood forests. Even beating out oaks and maples in the forest, the American tulip tree can grow to be a staggering 60 meters tall. The largest American tulip tree on record is 58 meters.

The trunk is always perfectly straight and coated in dark brown, furrowed bark (which is rather aromatic). No branches grow along the trunk until the crown, which is densely crowded with thin branches. The root system runs very deep and spreads very wide.

On the ends of the branches, you will find light green leaves that fade to yellow in the fall. They are four lobes, each lobe in the shape of a heart (aw). The winter replaces the yellow leaves with dark redbuds, which emerge as yellow flowers in the late spring with orange streaks. These flowers look just like tulips.

The fruit of the American tulip tree is a samara (winged pod) that contains a tetrahedrally shaped seed. These types of seeds are shaped liked helicopters so that they can travel further, and germinate more widely.

A close look at a couple of flowers of a tulip tree.

Where does the American Tulip Tree Grow?

This is a native tree to North America. The American tulip tree prefers to grow in deeply moist, mildly acidic soil. They prefer temperate climates and partial sun and shade. In areas where there is a lot of canopy competition, they will often beat every other species of tree to access that sunlight by growing the tallest. If they live in an open field, they will remain at a more modest height and reserve their energy.

The regions in America that have all of these conditions are:

  • southern Ontario (Canada)
  • southern Quebec (Canada)
  • Massachusetts
  • Rhode Island
  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • Louisiana

A large lawn that showcases a tulip tree.

What is American Tulip Wood Used For?

Due to the American Tulip trees wide and straight trunk, it is an ideal candidate for the lumber industry. Although the wood is rather pale and unattractive, it is very sturdy and easy to work with. For this reason, American tulipwood – otherwise known as canoewood or white wood – is used in the foundational structuring of inexpensive furniture.

The reason why the wood of the American tulip tree has been nicknamed “canoewood”, is because eastern Native American tribes used this tree to create dugout canoes.

Additionally, the American tulip tree flowers actually produce nectar. The honey that is produced from this tree is apparently very dark red with a strong earthy flavor. It is a love hate relationship with folks and American tulip honey.

Not many animals eat the flowers or foliage of the American tulip tree. Those with a tulip tree diet are usually part of the lepidopteran species (moths and butterflies) or caterpillars.

A close look at the colorful flowers of a tulip tree.

2. The Chinese Tulip Tree – liriodendron chinense

Compared to the American tulip tree, the Chinese tulip tree is not all that different. They are part of the same family, prefer the same climate, but just grow on other sides of the planet. Also of the deciduous tree category, the Chinese tulip tree can live just as long, a baffling 500 years when in the proper growing conditions. A medium to fast growing tree, their flowers develop in the early spring and attract all sorts of bees, white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, eastern tiger swallowtail, and ruby-throated hummingbirds.

What does the Chinese Tulip Tree Look Like?

Like the American tulip tree, the Chinese variety also has very straight and tall trunks with dark brown, furrowed bark. However, they will not grow nearly as tall as their siblings. Chinese tulip trees will only grow to be about 40 meters tall in their lifetime.

The leaves of the Chinese tulip tree are larger than their sibling’s leaves, almost double in size. In the fall in China the leaves will turn yellow, red, or brown, and they are more deeply lobed on young trees. They tend to fill out as they age.

Chinese tulip trees tend to grow lower branches than the American tulip tree, and is far easier when it comes to cultivating and planting. Overall, it’s a more manageable tree. It is more common to plant tulip tree of the Chinese variety in your yard than the American variety.

The flowers on the Chinese tulip tree are absent of the vibrant orange color that the American tulip tree has, but they still sport a beautiful golden yellow and green flower, just like a tulip.

Tuliptree seeds of the Chinese variety are also samaras! A young tree will start developing seeds in small bunches at around 15 years old, and older trees will simply produce more and more seeds as their life continues.

A look up the tulip tree with green leaves and colorful flowers.

Where does the Chinese Tulip Tree Grow?

The Chinese tulip tree prefers to grow in deeply moist, mildly acidic soil. They prefer temperate climates and partial sun and partial shade. In areas where there is a lot of canopy competition, they will often beat every other species of tree to access that sunlight by growing the tallest. If they live in an open field, they will remain at a more modest height and reserve their energy.

The regions in China that have all of these growing conditions are:

  • Sichuan
  • Yunnan
  • Anhui
  • Jiangsu
  • Guangxi
  • Fujian
  • Guizhou
  • Hunan
  • Hubei
  • Shaanxi
  • Jiangxi
  • Zheijand

This is close look at the flower of a tulip tree.

What is Chinese Tulip Wood Used For?

The Chinese tulip tree is used for ornamental purposes over anything else. They are more easily cultivated than the American tulip tree, and they are found all over Europe and Canada. They line the streets of Victoria, British Columbia, and they’re a staple in many ornamental gardens in the United Kingdom.

This is a close look at the leaves of a tulip tree.


Are there any pests attracted to tulip trees?

As for almost all plants, tulip trees are susceptible to attacks from aphid colonies. But not to worry! Incorporating ladybugs into your yard will help fend off nasty aphids.

Additionally, although not quite a pest, tulip trees are also susceptible to a fungus called verticillium. Verticillium is a sooty mold, or wilt disease that slowly takes down all kinds of plants, tulip trees included.

Are tulip tree roots invasive?

Not exactly. In order to obtain the most amount of moisture, tulip tree roots will grow down rather than out. For this reason, they are safe trees to plant in a yard without fearing that they will damage infrastructure.

Are tulip tree flowers edible?

Although tulip tree flowers are able to make nectar, they are not particularly edible. Although they are not toxic, they aren’t very enjoyable.

Are tulip trees fast-growing?

Tulip trees grow an average of 25 inches a year — this means that they are medium to fast growing. They grow much more rapidly as they are maturing, and then slowly stop growing once they’ve reached that final stage.

Are tulip trees hardwood?

The wood of tulip trees is considered the hardest hardwood of North American hardwood trees.

Do tulip trees make good firewood?

All wood burns. However, tulip tree wood tends to burn quite stinkily. This is because of the nutrients in the soil that the tree grows in.

Is a tulip tree a magnolia?

The tulip tree is not a magnolia tree, but it is part of the magnolia family. So magnolia is the family, the tulip is the species.

What is the tallest tulip tree?

The tallest tulip tree on record is 58.49 meters tall.

What zone do tulip trees live in?

Tulip trees grow in the USDA plant hardiness zones 4-9.

When do tulip trees bloom?

Tulip trees are likely to bloom from May to June, much like many other deciduous trees.

Why are my tulip tree leaves turning yellow?

Tulip trees are deciduous trees, meaning that their leaves will change color and eventually fall off when the colder season approaches. If the leaves on your tulip tree are turning yellow in early to late fall, it is because they are designed to!

At what age do tulip trees bloom?

Some tulip trees won’t actually bloom until they are about 15 years old. Considering that this variety of tree can live to be about 500 years old, they’re kind of early bloomers!

Are there dwarf tulip trees?

There are tulip trees that are cultivated to be about half the size of their regular size, but considering that they’re so tall in the first place, they’re probably not considered as dwarf trees.

Do tulip trees have deep roots?

Tulip trees really like lots of moisture. In order to obtain that, they ensure that their roots grow very deeply into the earth in order to obtain all of that locked in moisture. Not only that, their trunks are so large and tall that they need a strong root system in order to weather the weather!

Do tulip trees need full sun?

When tulip trees are competing with other trees for sunlight, they will grow the tallest to obtain that energy. When tulip trees grow in fields and don’t need to compete in sunlight, they won’t grow as tall to save their energy.

Tulip trees don’t necessarily need full sun to survive, but they will definitely prosper with it. The regions that these trees grow in have lots of sun and lots of cloudy days as well.