Yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), also called tulip-tree and tulip-poplar due to its tulip-like bloom, is a member of the magnolia family but is in a different genus than the common
magnolias. Curiously, it is not a true poplar. The poplars include the cottonwood species, balsam poplar and aspen, but not yellow poplar. It was commonly called a poplar because the leaves are dark green on top and silvery green on bottom, much like the poplars. That is where the resemblance ends.
It is one of the faster growing and tallest hardwoods of the eastern United States. It can grow to a height of 190 feet with a diameter of eight to 14 feet at the ripe old age of 300 years; however, it normally grows to 150-200 years before dying of old age and is commonly found to be 100 to 150 feet tall and two to four feet in diameter.The largest trees found today are in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Yellow poplar naturally occurs from New England west through Michigan and south to Louisiana and central Florida. It prefers deep, moist but well-drained soils and is most plentiful in the Appalachians and Piedmont areas from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. It does well in the eastern lower Mississippi Valley but occurs west of the Mississippi in only narrow bands in Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana, along the hills adjacent to the Mississippi River basin.
Since yellow poplar is strong, with large logs which are relatively light, dense and easy to work, it was used extensively by the Native Americans of Virginia and the Carolinas to build dugout canoes. The same characteristics made it useful for framing lumber for homes and cabins; however, few of these historic structures remain since the wood is not as resistant to rot as chestnut or old-growth pine.
During the early 20th century,much of the heartwood of old growth yellow poplar was marketed as “blue poplar” due to the bluish colored heartwood of a freshly cut old-growth tree. As it dries, the heartwood turns greenish-yellow to light brown in color. Many logs were so large that it was necessary to split them at the sawmill (using explosives) in order to make the piece small enough to fit on the saw carriage.
Due to yellow poplar’s rapid growth, beautiful form, attractive green summer foliage, greenish-yellow tulip-like flowers and its brilliant yellow autumn color, it is valued in many places as a shade tree. It is also a very good source of nectar for honey bees.