Dear Readers, having noticed that there was a tulip tree in the cemetery at the weekend, it seems only fair to give them some attention. These really are stunning trees, and not at all suitable as a street tree, as they grow to a massive size. There are two species of tulip tree, one (Liriodendron tulipifera) from North America and the other, Liriodendron chinense, originating in Vietnam and China as the name suggests. The petals on the flowers of the Asian tree do not have the orange tinge that you can see in the tree above.
I have encountered tulip trees during my perambulations before. You might remember the one below, found in Inner Temple Gardens last year (a lovely spot that is well worth a visit if you’re in London).
And then there was this one in St Paul’s Churchyard which had variegated leaves.
Tulip trees are extremely ancient – they are in the Magnolia family (these trees originated before social bees did, and so were originally largely pollinated by beetles). Fossil tulip trees have been found in Europe, but the species was probably wiped out here during the glacial phases, leaving them only in North America and Asia. In the Appalachians there are a number of enormous tulip trees, including one in the Smoky Mountains National Reserve which, at over 190 feet tall, is the largest non-coniferous tree in North America. It must be quite something to see this tree growing wild – as with many of the specimen trees that are grown in UK I find it hard to visualise a whole forest of them.
The tulip tree has also been known as yellow poplar, tulip poplar (in spite of it being no relation to the poplars) and canoe wood – as the name suggests, Native Americans and early settlers built canoes from the tree. Although not being the hardest of the hardwoods, it has been used for flooring and for building houses and barns, its resistance to termites making it particularly popular where these critters wreak havoc.
Medicinally, the bark of the tulip tree was boiled up to make a treatment for malaria and typhoid, which was very prevalent then in the areas where the tree grows. There was a belief that if you dreamed you were bitten by a snake, you needed to apply tulip tree to the ‘wound site’, otherwise it could turn into arthritis, and a decoction of the bark was indeed used to treat ‘real’ joint complaints. The flowers were turned into an ointment to soothe the skin, particularly for burns. For more information on how thoroughly the tulip tree was interlaced with the area in which it grew, have a look at this fascinating blogpost on Blood and Spicebush.
The flowers are said to be so sweet and nectar-filled that you can drink directly from the blossom, though looking at the height of some of these trees you would need to be very intrepid indeed. The root is sometimes used to give a lemon flavour to spruce beer, a Canadian beverage made from, you guessed it, the young leaves of the spruce tree.
The inner bark was shredded and put between layers of clothing by Native Americans if they were caught out in sub-zero temperatures, a very useful thing to know. The bark was also used to make cordage for baskets.
One way to identify a tulip tree if it doesn’t have any flowers is by those distinctive leaves. Apparently the story goes that when Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, Eve was so miffed that she pulled the central lobe out of the leaf of a tulip tree that she was passing. Ever since, the leaves have grown without it.
And finally, a poem. I am sure that anyone with substantial trees in a small garden will feel the sting of this. See what you think…
They wanted to tear down the tulip tree, our neighbors, last year. It throws a shadow over their vegetable patch, the only tree in our backyard. We said no. Now they’ve hired someone to chainsaw an arm—the crux on our side of the fence—and my wife, in tousled hair and morning sweat, marches to stop the carnage, mid-limb. It reminds her of her childhood home, a shady place to hide. She recites her litany of no, returns. Minutes later, the neighbors emerge. The worker points to our unblinded window. I want to say, it’s not me, slide out of view behind a wall of cupboards, ominous breakfast table, steam of tea, our two young daughters now alone. I want no trouble. Must I fight for my wife’s desire for yellow blooms when my neighbors’ tomatoes will stunt and blight in shade? Always the same story: two people, one tree, not enough land or light or love. Like the baby brought to Solomon, someone must give. Dear neighbor, it’s not me. Bloom-shadowed, light-deprived, they lower the chainsaw again.
Photo One by By I, KENPEI, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6744192
Photo Two by By Romeyn Beck Hough(Life time: 1924) – Original publication: US, self-publishedImmediate source: https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/the-american-woods/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54472319
Photo Three by By Bruce Marlin – Own work: http://www.cirrusimage.com/tree_tulip.htm, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3371959