Winter Trees: Tuliptree

Tuliptree bud (photo by Kate St. John)

The tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) is easy to identify by its leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds but more of challenge when you’re limited to twigs and bark.

In early winter, look up and you’ll find the tree dotted with upright, drying fruits shaped like flowers.  Each one is a seed cluster of samaras attached at the base of the “flower.”

Samara clusters on a tuliptree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As time passes, the fruits dry and the samaras blow away from the tree or fall to the ground below.  They look like rounded skis with a lump at the toe.

Tuliptree samaras on the ground (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the absence of these clues examine the twigs, trunk and bark.

The reddish-brown twigs are less than 1/2 inch thick and have alternate leaf buds with a single large end bud shaped like a duck’s bill.  This shape is your big clue that it’s a tuliptree.  I’ve read that this bud encloses the nascent leaves until the frosts are past, then the leaves unfurl like wings.  Also notice the stipule scar that surrounds the twig where the leaf used to be.

I’ve seen both reddish-dark-gray and deep-red end buds in Schenley Park.  Dark gray is shown in the first photo, deep red below:

Identifying the tree by its bark is another story.  The best clue is the shape of the trunk.  It’s very straight and tall with no lower branches because these trees grow so fast.  Tuliptrees are shade intolerant and put all their energy into the trunk during their surge to the sun.  Along the way they drop their lower branches and leave a big upside down smile on the bark where the branch used to be.  This is noticeable on younger trees whose bark has flat-topped ridges with lighter furrows, shown here:

Bark of younger tuliptree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On older trees the ridges look less flat-topped, the furrows aren’t as light and the smiles are hard to find, though you will see horizontal line breaks in the bark:

Bark of older tuliptree (photo by Kate St. John)

When young tuliptrees reach the top of the canopy, their crowns are shaped like candle flames which they resemble when their leaves turn yellow in autumn.  They drop their leaves from the bottom first leaving a few fluttering leaves at the top in late November as the “candles” are going out.

Autumn tuliptree shaped like a candle flame (photo by John Ruter, Univ. Georgia, Bugwood.org)

Perhaps the fluttering yellow leaves gave them the alternate name of yellow-poplar. The tuliptree is not a poplar, though.  It’s in the magnolia family and will have beautiful flowers in the spring.

(Buds and bark photos by Kate St. John.  Samara and young bark photos from Wikimedia Commons. Autumn tuliptree by John Ruter, Univ of Georgia at Bugwood.org. Click on the captions to see the originals.)

3 thoughts on “Winter Trees: Tuliptree

  1. I LOVE these trees in spring and summer. There are 2 near the graves of my husband and son at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Penn Hills and I remember birding in/through Keystone State Park with Danny (son who’s buried at Mt. Hope) one year and there were quite a few along the walkway on the path across from the beach and boat launch area and he enjoyed them as much as I did (was fascinated that the flowers looked like tulips but were on a tree!). Thanks for this interesting article, Kate…

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