Two types of tulip trees and their cultivars, belonging to the genus Liriodendron, are suitable landscaping tools. One is a native tree in North America, while the other hails from China and Indochina. These tulip trees take their name from their flowers, which bear a close similarity to regular garden-variety tulips. The American version of this tree is so outstanding in the landscape, it is the state tree of three states — Tennessee, Indiana and Kentucky.
The tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) has a native range from eastern New York and southern New England west to Wisconsin and Indiana. The southern range includes nearly the entire Deep South, except for southern Florida and much of Louisiana. The tree survives from U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 9. Chinese tulip trees (Liriodendron chinense) have their native Asian range, but in the United States grow between USDA zones 6 through 9.
The American tulip tree, also called tulip magnolia or yellow poplar, grows to great size in some situations, topping 150 feet. Most grow between 60 and 90 feet in the landscape, with trunks as wide 4 to 6 feet across. The Chinese tulip tree is somewhat smaller, but still a large specimen at from 50 to 70 feet high and 30 to 40 feet wide. Cultivars of the American version include the narrow Fastigiatum form, growing to 60 feet, and the 80-foot high Aureomarginatum type. The University of Connecticut Plant Database describes the Ardis and Compactum cultivars as "much reduced" in size from the parent species.
The flowers on the American tulip tree start to bloom during May and last into June, developing to be as long as 3 inches and having the familiar cuplike tulip shape. Their colors include a yellow-green petal with an orange band circling their bases. The Chinese tulip tree’s flowers, half as large, are olive green with yellow at their bottoms. The leaves of the American tulip tree actually own a tuliplike silhouette, with lengths up to 8 inches and a bright green color. The foliage on the Chinese tulip tree has noticeably deeper lobes than does its American cousin.
The size of a full-grown tulip tree may be too much for a small landscape. One drawback with this species is that although the flowers are extremely ornamental when in bloom, the dense foliage and the fact they emerge high up in the canopy makes them almost impossible to see with ease. This makes utilizing some of the smaller cultivars more sensible. Grow tulip trees in full sun to part shade. The trees do their best in a fertile, deep, damp soil. Take advantage of the golden fall colors of the leaves by putting a tulip tree in an open space for all to see.