You may be familiar with Liriodendron tulipifera, the “tulip-bearing lily tree” commonly called tuliptree, tulip poplar, yellow poplar, or canoetree. I never knew this tree from the beech-maple-hemlock forests of my upstate NY youth, but came to appreciate it years later as a spectacular member of humid forests in the Southeast and the central Appalachians. Why spectacular? Tuliptrees, for one, can get huge: in mature forests, specimens over 100 feet tall are common, and they might make 200 feet if left alone for long enough. The trunks on these big trees are massive as well, and they tend to be branchless for a good distance up. Their shiny green leaves are also vaguely shaped like a tulip, so the tree is easy to recognize during the growing season. They have persistent, big fruiting bodies that adorn the tree in winter, making it easy to recognize then as well. But my favorite thing about tuliptrees is their abundant, showy flowers with their subtle, but intoxicating, scent.
I was surveying waterthrushes in Pennsylvania many years ago, along a crystal clear Appalachian stream amid a cathedral of mature hemlocks and other trees. A fine, soft rain had been falling this spring morning, and a light breeze flowed through the woods. Suddenly, I was enveloped in perfume – a fresh, delicate scent quintessentially “springy” with a hint of lemon zest mixed in. It took me a moment to find the source, and there it was: a big tuliptree dripping with the flowers that belie the tree’s affinity with its grand relatives, the magnolias. When conditions are just right, you may experience life in its fullest abundance, downwind from a tuliptree.
I was thrilled to discover such a tree on our front lawn in Stillwater, and further thrilled to find it in full flower last week. For a moment, I caught a whiff of this tree, and it brought me instantly back to that Appalachian spring many moons ago.