If you think the tulip tree is a dainty, small flowering species because of its name, you are wrong. If you think the tulip magnolia produces showy, attractive flowers because of its name, you are right. Tulip magnolia and tulip tree are names for the same species of tree, as is tulip poplar. This native of the eastern United States comes in different cultivars and works as a landscaping tree in yards where there is plenty of room.
Belonging to the magnolia family, the tulip tree grows to enormous size on occasion. When white settlers first appeared on the continent, specimens as tall as 150 feet were abundant, but have long since fallen to the woodsman’s axe. Cultivated forms usually grow between 60 to 90 feet, but individuals growing higher than 100 feet are common. The trunk of a tulip tree is normally in the range of 2 to 3 feet across, but some are massive, with diameters of 6 feet. Its native range extends south from southern New England to the northern third of Florida and westward to the Mississippi Valley and central Midwest.
Everything about a tulip tree’s flowers and foliage screams tulips. The leaves have the shape of a tulip flower’s outline, growing to 8 inches across. The foliage is bright green, but changes to eye-opening shades of yellow or gold in autumn. The flowers resemble those of the tulip, with widths up to 2 inches. They are a combination of orange, yellow and green, making them highly attractive. The one catch is that they usually develop on the mature trees in the upper branches, making them nearly impossible to see from ground level, notes the University of Connecticut Plant Database.
A tulip tree survives from U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zone 4 through zone 9. The tree thrives in full sun, but can handle light shade. Deep, fertile, damp soil supports the tulip tree well. If the soil has a slight level of acidity, then the tree grows even better. Though the tulip tree’s range includes the Deep South, the tree has no tolerance for dry, hot sites. Use the tulip tree as a shade tree or a specimen tree in open, large tracts of land where it has room to mature.
Aureomarginatum is a variegated type of tulip tree, growing to 80 feet; its foliage features yellow-green edges. Another hybrid is the narrow Fastigiatum hybrid, which attains heights close to 60 feet, but only has a width of 20 feet. Smaller, more compact hybrids of the tulip tree include Compactum and Ardis, a pair of cultivars possessing smaller leaves and growing to smaller size than the parent species does. The Integrifolium hybrid has nearly rectangular leaves, but is not a common tree in nurseries.