Tulip tree, a surprising shade tree with tulip-like blooming!

Tulip tree

Tulip tree is a magnificent tree, famous for the quality of its leafage, especially in fall.

Tulip Tree facts,  a short list

NameLiriodendron tulipifera
FamilyMagnoliaceae (magnolia)
Type – tree

Height – up to 130 feet (35 meters)
Hardiness – temperate to warm
Exposure – full sun to part shade
Soil – deep, rich, well-draining, not chalky

Growth rate: fast  –   Foliage: deciduous  –  Flowering: summer

Leaves switch to marvelous hues, such as bright yellow, when the first colds arrive. And the flower… looks just like a tulip!

What is a tulip tree?

Yellow tulip tree flowerThere are two main species of tulip trees: Chinese tulip tree (Liriodendron chinense) and Virginia tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera).

To tell them apart, look at their leaves: those of L. chinense have deeper lobes than those of L. tulipfera.

Tulip trees owe their name to the shape of their flowers.

Even though they belong to the magnolia family, they don’t quite reach the same beauty. Indeed, flowering is more sparse and spread over time, so it doesn’t get that “all covered with blooms” effect.

Tulip tree leafLeaves, though, are wide and thick. In fall, when the cold hits, they turn to bright hues like yellow and orange. Some say the leaves are shaped like a cat’s head. They’re similar in shape to those of the plane tree, and are excellent to keep hot sun out as a shade tree.

Easier to find is the “Virginia tulip tree”, with good cause: it is native to North America (specifically, the Appalachian mountain range)! Two varieties stand out:

  • ‘Aureomarginatum’ which has gold-yellow variegated leaves;
  • ‘Fastigiata’ which grows narrow, tall and dense.

Planting tulip trees

To grow well, the tulip tree has a few requirements.

  • full sun or part shade exposure;
  • lots of space for the branches to spread unimpeded;
  • well-draining, rich and especially non-limestone soil.

When to plant a tulip tree

It is recommended to plant tulip trees at the beginning of fall to allow for root development before winter.

How to plant Liriodendron?

The proportions and size of the tree when mature make it impossible to grow in a pot.

If purchased in a pot or container:

A few simple steps and your tulip tree will feel right at home:

  • Planting a tulip treeDig a deep planting hole (1½ to 2 feet or 40-50 cm deep and wide).
  • Layer a bed of clay pebbles along the bottom to increase drainage.
  • Cover with a little potting soil mixed in with garden soil together.
  • Remove the tulip tree from its pot and break the clump up to free the roots.
  • Settle the root ball in the hole and position a stake as close to the trunk as you can, but without wounding roots.
  • Backfill the hole with, again, potting soil and garden soil. Press it down well around the foot of the tree.
  • Tether the trunk to the stake with a loose figure-8 noose, with the knot in the middle and a loop each around tree and stake.
  • Water abundantly.

For a bare-root specimen:

Usually, the tulip tree is sold in pots. But you may have come across a garden center that sells it with a bare root clump. If so, follow these extra steps to get your tree ready:

  • Take a look at each root and snip torn and damaged ones off cleanly with sharp shears.
  • Prepare root dip and dip the root ball in it.
  • Next steps are identical to those above.

Smart tip: save on water and weeding with a thick layer of mulch at the base of your tulip tree. Plant-based mulch is best, in particular pine bark mulch: these make the soil a bit more acidic as they break down, which is perfect for Liriodendron.

Caring for tulip tree

Tulip tree careNo specific care is needed, just basic things:

  • Pay attention to water needs during summer, especially over the first few years.
  • Add fresh mulch when the layer isn’t as thick anymore.
  • Monitor the stake and tether, loosen it as soon as it isn’t free-falling around the trunk.

Pruning isn’t required. Depending on the shape of your young tree, you may want to shape it a bit during the first 5 years.

However, pruning isn’t recommended when the tree is grown already.

Propagating the tulip tree

Propagating tulip treeIn fall, sow seeds collected from your Liriodendron tulipifera.

However, for special cultivars like ‘Aureomarginatum’ and ‘Fastigiata’, go for grafting at the end of summer to retain their unique traits.

Indeed, seeds will always be a mix of genes and you can’t guarantee that offspring will look like the mother tree.

Diseases, pests that attack the tulip tree

Tulip tree diseases

This tree, when healthy, will resist almost any pest. However, if ever it’s weakened due to poor growing conditions, it might be vulnerable to the following diseases.

  • Problems with tulip treeVerticillium wilt – leaves wilt and branches die off. Nourish the tree with a high-nitrogen fertilizer in the hope of “outgrowing” the fungus over the course of a year.
  • Fusarium wilt – spots on leaves. Not fatal to the tree. Treat with Bordeaux mixture if infection is severe.
  • Canker – wounds appear on bark on branches and trunk. How to treat tree canker.
  • Powdery mildew – leaves are covered in whitish dust, especially in warm, moist weather.

Pests on tulip tree

As for pests, aphids are highly likely to appear at some point on your tulip tree.

  • Unless the tree is covered in them, you needn’t worry too much about them.
  • If they become too numerous, read up on how to deal with an aphid invasion.
  • Aphids in high numbers usually attract another fungus, sooty mold. Get rid of the aphids and this disease will go away.

Uses of the tulip tree for landscaping

Quite common in parks and large gardens, the tulip tree also does well in long rows, lining a road or property edge for instance.

Two similar and interesting shade trees, nearly identical in size and bearing to the tulip tree are the Catalpa tree (which as orchid- like flowers) and the Handkerchief tree, Davidia involuncrata.

Smart tip about the tulip tree

Although native to North America, many fossils of the tree can be found in Europe. This is because the tree actually became extinct over there during continental glacial eras. These occurred 65 million years ago, same time as the dinosaurs died off around the globe!

Images: CC BY 2.0: Alex Lomas, Gail Hampshire, Katja Schulz, CC BY-SA 2.0: Rudolf Schäfer; Pixabay: Onno Kalverda (Netherlands), Martin Hetto; Public Domain: Ian Wolfe, Nate, Reuven Martin