Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Gardening: Tulips on a tree? Liriodendron tulipifera

He who plants a tree, plants a hope. – Lucy Larcom

Liriodendron tulipifera (tulip tree). Photo: photommo, Flickr ccl
I like my trees to be something a bit special. They need to be beautiful in leaf, interesting in winter, and deliver something extra – be that unusual leaves, fruit, seed pods or flowers. Here's one that delivers on a few of those counts.

Liriodendron tulipfera is a statuesque tree that you'll have to give lots of breathing room for at maturity. It has distinctive leaves, nice Autumn colour and blooms with very unusual tulip-like flowers. How's that for most of what you would ever want in your garden?

Many people rely on magnolias in Zone 6 for trees that bloom with larger flowers, but there are many more. Liriodendron is one such tree. It goes by the common name of tulip tree. It also happens to be a relative of the magnolia.

I saw my first tulip tree when I was quite young. I remember it for its unusually shaped leaves – but not flowers. There's a reason for this. It was on the same street as my music teacher's home. My lessons went from September to May. Tulip trees bloom in the summer months. Therefore I never saw them. But the leaves and shape alone made it a standout from our usual fare in Nova Scotia.

I had a chance last year to go back and see that tree. It has grown considerably from what I remember. Quite considerably, in fact. It was huge. It must be absolutely amazing in bloom.

Photo: wlcutler, Flickr ccl
Tulip trees are native to the eastern United States and can reach heights of up to 190 feet. That's for a very, very old tree. Usual height is a more manageable 70 feet. It is the state tree of Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. 

This is a tree that needs full sun. Over time it will become a shade tree for you to enjoy, so keep that in mind when choosing your planting site.

The leaves are interesting in themselves. They start out "v" shaped with two lobes and then cut in and are straight across the top. The tulip tree we purchased last year was variegated, so the leaves are both green and cream which is an added bonus. 

Leaves turn yellow in the Fall. Quite decorative, all in all. We have ours planted next to a purple beech, so the future should be quite colourful in that spot.

The blossoms are relatively small, about 2-3 inches tall and a yellowy green with a hint of orange. They grow singly on the branch tips and are upward facing. When the blossom fades the pistil turns into a slender cone. They are very tulip-like in appearance, which is responsible for its name.

The tulip tree's native range is from Illinois, across to the southern New England States and down to Florida. We took a chance purchasing one as it is borderline hardy in Nova Scotia. We are Zone 5B to 6A, depending on the location in the province. The tree we purchased was Zone 6 which is borderline hardy for us.

A young tree going into Fall colour.
Photo: Badly Drawn Dad, Flickr ccl
But once again our ocean proximity has stepped in to help us. We purchased a 6 foot specimen from Lakeland Plantworld in Dartmouth late last summer. It settled in quite quickly. We were rewarded with bloom in the Autumn, once the tree knew it was in a happy spot.

Henry, our dog, inadvertently broke off a few branches when we were transporting it. By the end of the season it had already started to produce buds in the broken spots to replace those branches. That's a very good sign. Or an omen of rampant growth…

The tree survived this last winter in fine shape and has already shown signs of being ready for the new season. We're looking forward to the display it will give us this season!


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