Tulip trees derive their name from the tulip-like flowers that appear in late spring. Two species have the common name "tulip tree." One is the Liriodendron tulipfera and the other is the Magnolia soulangiana (also called the saucer magnolia). These two trees differ in their leaf shape and in the color of their flowers and bark.
The Magnolia tulip tree bears blooms that measure 6 inches across when fully open. The flowers come in solid colors such as white, pink or a deep purple. Some trees have flowers with pink at one end of the petals that fades to white at the other end. Other varieties have petals with streaks of pink or purple on a white background.
The flowers on the Liriodendron tulip tree measure about two inches when fully open. Seen before it opens, the flower bud is pale orange at the base and grayish-green at the top half. Once opened, the bloom reveals its orange-yellow center.
The bark of the Magnolia tulip tree is smooth and gray. The leaves are elliptical and have a reddish color to them when they first emerge. Over the summer, the leaves are dark green with a light gloss. Before the leaves fall in the autumn, the leaves turn brownish-yellow.
The bark of the Liriodendron tulip tree is gray and, in young trees, is smooth. As the tree matures, netted striations appear in the bark. The leaves of the Liriodendron tulip tree have and outline like a tulip flower in bloom. The leaves are bright green during the summer and turn a showy yellow in the autumn before they fall.