Liriodendron tulipifera tulip tree
Tulip tree flower, Belfast Botanic Gardens 2006

Family: Magnoliaceae

Origin: North America

Found in all the eastern areas of North America, and reaching its best in the Alleghenies, the tulip tree is a magnificent large tree which can attain a height of 59 m, with a trunk up to 3 m in diameter. It needs deep, rich soil to prosper.

A tulip tree is known to have been growing in the gardens of Bishop Compton at Fulham (now in London) in 1688, but it seems likely that others were in cultivation before then, as there was a tree at Waltham Abbey 30 m tall (96 ft) by 1745. Bean refers to 'the introduction of 1675' when making mention of one growing at Esher Place in Surrey, which in 1967 was 26 m x 8 m in girth.

Tulip tree foliage and flower, Belfast Botanic Gardens 2006

Leaves are up to 20 cm long x 7 cm wide, dull, greyish, mid-green above, paler beneath. They are usually 3-lobed, with the larger, central lobe abruptly truncated in an almost straight line; the other 2 are less pronounced and join at the midrib to give a broad base to the leaf.

The flowers are borne in June and July and bear a strong resemblance to a many-petalled tulip; the petals are lime green, with an occasional orange blotch. In the centre of the flower is the large pistil, surrounded by many stamens. Large quantities of seed are produced, but generally only a small percentage of them successfully germinate.

Tulip tree foliage, Belfast Botanic Gardens 2006

There are several cultivars, of which the four best-known are 'Aureomarginatum' with yellow margins to the leaves; 'Aureopictum', with a yellow centre to the leaves; 'Crispum', with leaves which have wavy margins and which are broader than long; and 'Fastigiatum', of columnar habit. A form, L. tulipiferum f. integrifolium, persists in the juvenile leaf-form ie it has no lateral lobes to the leaves.

The generic name Liriodendron is derived from the Greek leirio lily and dendron tree; tulipifera means tulip-bearing. Photographed in Belfast Botanic Gardens in June 2006.

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