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The Eighty-Foot Tulip

Source: Personal experience

Read this and other stories in the book, Noticing Nature, by Chuck Bonner. Also available in e-book format for Amazon Kindle.

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An eighty-foot tulip? Yes, indeed. I'm not pulling your leg. Not much, anyway. The "tulip" I'm referring to is a tulip poplar tree (Liriodendron tulipifera).

The tulip poplar is one of the most common trees in Delaware, where I lived as a teenager. It is found from southern New England to northern Florida and west to the Mississippi Valley.

Although it is quite a common tree, it has many unusual and even peculiar characteristics. Most "official" sources describe its peculiar flowers and cones, and the odd shape of its leaves, but there are some strange things about these trees that I've observed and never read about.

And since tulip trees don't live where I live now, I don't have any original pictures for you. I'll refer you to one of the "official" sources for excellent images and other information. Here is Wikipedia's article on the tree: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tulip_poplar

The first unusual characteristic is the flower. It does indeed look like a tulip, except for its pale green color. You might not notice them from the ground unless you look for them, but once you see them, you'll be surprised that you never saw them before. The inner surfaces of the petals, often invisible from the ground, have splashes of orange and yellow, but mostly the flower is just about the same color as the leaves. These flowers, which mostly bloom in mid- to late spring, are quite showy for such a magnificent shade tree.

Next are the cones. You wouldn't expect to find cones on a broad-leafed hardwood tree like this, but there they are! They're quite different from the cones of a true conifer, but they are unmistakably cones. The scales are very soft, and each scale forms the "wing" of a seed that helps it drift on the wind as it falls. Unlike the cones of a true conifer, which open and spill their seeds out, the cones of the tulip poplar simply fall apart. The seeds twirl as they fall, like the winged seeds of a maple.

Now, how about some unusual characteristics you're not likely to read about anywhere else.

When the tree is blooming, for some reason, its twigs become rather fragile. On a windy day in spring, you frequently hear the "plop" of falling twigs, each bearing a flower and a mass of several leaves. All through the forest, you see these giant green snowflakes drifting to the ground and landing with a muted thud. You may wonder that any flowers survive, there are so many falling off the trees every windy day, but survive they do.

When the cones ripen in September and October, about the same time as the white oaks are dropping their acorns, you are more likely to hear squirrels cutting tulip cones than acorns. We commonly think of squirrels as eating nuts, but where they can get them, they prefer tulip poplar cones.

In late October and early November when the leaves turn yellow and fall, the tulip poplar exhibits its last peculiarity of the year. Tulip poplar leaves are exceptionally aerodynamically stable. Most autumn leaves twirl and flutter randomly on their way down, but the leaves of the tulip poplar nearly always float gracefully to the ground, gliding like a well-made paper airplane.

Now, it's time for you to stop reading about it. Get out into the woods and take a good look at what's around you. You might just see an eighty-foot tulip.

(By the way, they can get much taller than eighty feet. Over twice that tall, in fact. But I don't think I've seen one much taller than that in Petersburg State Forest.)

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