Tennessee’s State Tree: The Tulip Polar

Unwinding under a shade tree with a cool glass of lemonade illustrates the perfect summer day. Tulip-shaped leaves blow in the light breeze; bird chirps fill the air. Sun rays filter through the tree’s massive bright green canopy. A delightful scent affirms its presence.

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This great tree is a mature tulip poplar in its height of glory. Well-known for its unique leaf shape and beautiful cupped flowers, the tree comes alive in the autumn months. The green leaves transform into striking golden beacons. Also known as the yellow poplar, this tree is not really a poplar at all! The Tulip Poplar is a member of the magnolia family. The state of Tennessee recognized these one-of-a-kind qualities and adopted the tulip poplar as its state tree in 1947.  

The tulip poplar’s characteristics are apart of its charm. The leaves are large. The flowers are in cup-like shapes—resembling the tulip plant. The petals of the flowers range from green to yellow, while the base of each petal features an orange band. The ash-colored trunk grows in a straight line towards the sky.

Tulip poplars grow at a rapid pace: the tree can increase over 24 inches in height each year. At maturity, the tree often reaches 70 to 90 feet in stature; however, the poplar’s full height can reach well over 100 feet. Records reveal tulip poplars of 190 feet in height. The coverage area of the tulip poplar is much less than height but provides plenty of room for relaxation in the shade; canopies often spread 40 feet in width. This makes the tree have an almost pyramid look to its foliage. Tulip poplars are a prominent species in much of the eastern United States, so wild forests of Tennessee often nurture the tulip poplar. Remarkably, the tulip poplar is very hardy; it is not susceptible to harsh damage from insects or diseases.

Wildlife takes advantage of the tree’s functionality. White-tailed deer, mice, and rabbits munch on young trees. Those mentioned creatures—including squirrels and birds—find shelter in the far-reaching branches. The canopy provides a safe area for animal families. Flowering poplars attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. Tulip tree seeds offer sustenance for finches, cardinals, quail, mice, squirrels, and rabbits. Deer can be seen browsing through twigs at times.

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The tulip tree is not only useful for wildlife: it has been an attribute to civilization for many years. Native Americans created dugout canoes by whittling away the soft wood of tulip poplars. Pioneers of the area used this wood to build houses and agricultural buildings. Medicinal properties were found in the tree’s anatomy. Typhoid and malaria were treated with boiled bark.

Nowadays, the tulip poplar continues to be a cornerstone of society. The wood is valuable; it is readily used due to its soft aspects. Tulip tree lumber is a potential pulpwood candidate; this wood is made into a pulp for the paper-making process. Lumber is also used in creating furniture, flooring, siding, and fencing. The tulip tree is a prime contender for reforestation purposes thanks to the rapidity of its growth. Paint and stain hold onto the wood easily due to its straight grain. Some poplar lumber helps construct single-family homes or storage sheds.

Tennesseans know and love the tulip poplar tree. Its abundance of shade invites individuals—all individuals—a place of rest and rejuvenation. The overarching broad leaves are a spectacular sight, as are the spring flowers and fall colors. Attractiveness is not the only positive trait: tulip poplars have many beneficial functions. The tulip poplar is a true definition of natural beauty.