Yellow Poplar or Tulip Tree

Liriodendron tulipifera

by John Brouwer

Yellow poplar is the native Carolinian Tulip tree. As with many of the more exotic Carolinian species, this area is the extreme northern limit of yellow poplar. It spreads south to northern Florida and west to the eastern edge of the plains.

Yellow poplar is related to the magnolia trees. Its common name comes from the tulip-like flowers. The trees bloom profusely in June with pale green to yellow flowers which stay upright on the branches.
Trees begin to flower after about 20 years and flower annually for over 200 years.

Yellow poplar grows to up to 100 feet in this area. In the southern applachians it can reach 165 feet. With this height in the forest mature yellow poplar may have 80 feet of limb-free trunk making it an exceptionally valuable lumber tree, competing with the pines.

In addition to lumber, yellow poplar has very specialized uses. Because it can be cut and sanded to very fine tolerances it has been used extensively in manufacturing organ valves and pipes. Because boards were very wide, the wood was used for carriage panels, coffins, and siding.

With its flowers. yellow poplar is an important nectar tree for the production of honey. The leaves can be used to produce a gold dye.

With its distinctive shiny green leaves, flowers, and overall oval shape, yellow poplar has been used as an ornamental tree. It is a fast-growing tree without the structural weakness normally associated with the other poplars. A 20 year old yellow poplar can be found in Victoria Park between the playground and the parking lot.

Because it is a fast-growing tree, yellow poplar has been a target for genetic modifications; mainly to increase its wood production. However recent work has focused on modifying the tree to absorb ground pollutants.

Apparently University of Georgia alchemists have genetically engineered yellow poplar trees giving them the ability to absorb toxic mercury from soil, convert the toxin to a relatively inert form, and release the converted mercury as a vapor into the atmosphere. A gene from mercury-resistant bacteria was inserted into the yellow poplar and test results showed that these trees had a ten-fold increase in mercury absorption. Seems to me it would be much better and easier not to cause the pollution in the first place.
Three yellow poplars were planted in the co-op two years ago. One just south of the bench behind the playground, one behind block two, and one adjacent to the fence near the Pine Tree and Bearinger intersection. Since the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, we have to wait another 15+ years before these tulip trees will flower.

March 2009