The tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), a.k.a. yellow poplar, tulip tree, or tulip magnolia, is a common and important part of our forests. Despite the name, tulip poplars aren’t poplars. Instead, the tulip poplar is in the magnolia family and is part of a genus that only has two species – the other species is found in China.
Tulip poplars play an important role in our forest ecosystems. They grow relatively quickly and can reach heights of over 100 feet. Songbirds commonly nest in the tall branches. Squirrels and songbirds often eat the seeds produced by the tulip poplar flowers. The tulip poplar is also the only host plant for the caterpillars of the tuliptree silkmoth (Callosamia angulifera) and one of the host plants for tiger swallowtail caterpillars (Papilio glaucus).
Tulip poplars are also very important for many pollinators because the flowers produce abundant nectar and pollen. Honey bees, native bees, and hummingbirds all visit tulip poplar flowers. Beekeepers consider tulip poplars a major honey plant meaning that honey bees often store surplus honey from it. Tulip poplar honey is a rich, reddish brown color.
In Kentucky, tulip poplars typically begin blooming in late April or early May and continue blooming into June. In my area, the tulip poplars started blooming a couple of weeks ago and the honey bees started working the flowers hard about a week ago. Our farm has lots of tulip poplar trees and they are the source of much of the honey that our bees produce.
Tulip poplar trees may begin blooming as young as 10-15 years old. Young tulip poplar trees growing in the open can have an almost pyramidal shape with flowers growing on the outside of all the branches. Older tulip poplar trees or ones growing in the woods have fewer low branches and produce most of the flowers higher up in the canopy. Tulip poplar flowers are relatively large and showy. They are a greenish yellow with orange in the center. Because they are often so high up in the canopy, the flowers are sometimes overlooked until the petals begin to drop to the ground.
The blooms can produce a huge amount of nectar. One study conducted in 1932, estimated that a single tulip poplar tree can produce approximately 9 pounds of nectar. However, the data for that study were gathered from a single tree. Nectar production varies greatly based on soil chemistry, soil moisture, air temperature, and many other factors so tulip poplar trees in other areas may produce more or less nectar. I haven’t found a citation for this claim, but I’ve often heard that a single tulip poplar tree can produce more nectar (and thus honey) than several acres of clover. The results of the 1932 study support this claim, even allowing for a large natural variation in nectar production between trees and locations.
The tulip poplar is the state tree for Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana. It is a common and important part of our forest ecosystems. Many species of Kentucky pollinators rely on the flowers and the foliage. For those interested in planting native trees for pollinators and other wildlife, the tulip poplar is a good option. Just remember that it gets very tall so should not be planted under power lines or in other areas where a tall tree could become problematic.
This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.
Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.