The Ever Popular Tulip Poplar

Tulip-poplarI first knew Indiana’s state tree by the name Tulip Poplar. Years later, I learned that it ‘should’ be referred to as the Tulip Tree or Yellow Poplar. All these are just common names for Liriodendron tulipifera, a member of the Magnolia family — and anyway, how can a ‘common’ name be incorrect?

Our state tree could do double duty — its blooms are as spectacular as any state flower I know of. As a state tree it’s pretty popular — Kentucky and Tennessee have chosen it as well. We did in 1923.

Okay, so it’s not even really a poplar. Other poplars, such as cottonwood won’t invite it to their family reunions. This misnomer isn’t important, but economically, the tree is. Its tall straight growth (over 150 feet) made it an ideal tree for fashioning the log cabins Brown County, Indiana is famous for. For a hardwood, it’s pretty easy to work with, having an even grain and mellow color prized by woodworkers.

Tulip Tree is considered a ’recovery species’ — quickly filling in open areas. Bees gather nectar from the showy flowers, and many birds and mammals depend on seeds from the tree for food.

Oil on silk and chiffon on board, by Donna Vlahakis

Oil on silk and chiffon on board, by Donna Vlahakis

These are all great recommendations, but the artist who chose its blossoms as a subject during the Festival of Flowers PaintOut was likely thinking only of its beauty. She chose well, winning first place in the mixed media category.

Indiana has a lot of great trees, but I can’t think of one more appropriate to represent both our state, and the beauty of this site than the Tulip Tree. Wouldn’t you agree?

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

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