The tulip poplar, or liriodendron tulipifera, is the state tree of Tennessee. It is also the state tree of Kentucky and Indiana. This tree is actually a member of the magnolia family and isn’t a true poplar. It was named for its striking yellow flowers that look like tulips. Also known as a yellow poplar, this tree received its official designation as the state tree of Tennessee in 1947.
It was chosen to be a state symbol since it can be found throughout Tennessee and has been an important resource. Tulip poplar trees were heavily logged by the early settlers and land barons. Pioneers liberally used this state tree of Tennessee to build baskets, boats, paper pulp, furniture, and various buildings, including their homes and barns. They are sometimes called canoe trees since Native Americans used tulip poplars to build their canoes.
This deciduous tree is native to North America. It is a large, fast-growing shade tree that can reach a height of 200 feet (61 meters). The tulip poplar has a wide spread that roughly equals half of its height.
Tulip poplar leaves are also large. A mature leaf can be almost 10 inches (25 centimeters) long and 8.5 inches (22 centimeters) wide. Tulip poplars can be identified when not in bloom by the unusual shape of their lobed leaves.
The brilliant yellow and orange flowers of the state tree of Tennessee are approximately 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) deep. These flowers produce nectar that attracts hummingbirds and bees. Squirrels and birds are attracted by the fruit, and the tree hosts several varieties of butterflies. Its trunk grows very straight, and the first branches often don’t appear until the first 50 feet (15 meters) or higher, creating a high, spreading canopy overhead. The bright green leaves turn a striking yellow in the fall.
Tulip poplars thrive in full sun and rich, well-drained soil, although some are shade-tolerant. Although it is hardy, the state tree of Tennessee doesn’t tolerate drought well and needs to be watered during extended dry periods. It propagates easily from seeds and cuttings. When sown in the fall, seedlings will sprout the following spring.
Yellow poplar is still used today, mainly in the construction of furniture and cabinetry. It is also commonly used in reforestation projects due to its longevity, hardiness, and rapid growth rate. Under the proper conditions, the state tree of Tennessee can live for several hundred years.