tulip poplar

Tulip poplars can grow to staggering sizes, with some specimens in pre-colonial days recorded at 200 feet in height.

It can be easy to feel like a top dog as a human, living in our gilded houses and zooming from place to place in a variety of sleek luxury vehicles.

For me, one of the easiest ways to temper these feelings of general superiority is to surround yourself in nature, where the sheer size and complexity of a forest’s living machinery can make you feel quite small in a variety of ways.

On the simplest level the height and girth of most trees dwarf our paltry forms. Unfortunately, our local forests are in the process of recovering from deep and lasting damage they received during the mining and logging booms of generations past, and so their size is significantly diminished from their historical averages. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still giants growing in our woods.

In fact, the tulip poplars spread throughout the Western North Carolina mountains are remnants of some of North America’s largest trees, which are as important to wildlife as they were to early American cultures. Neither tulips nor poplars, these trees are closer to magnolias, which is no surprise once you’ve seen their large and colorful spring-blooming flowers up close.

Accounts from early European explorers speak of absolutely monstrous tulip poplars in the pristine forests of eastern North America, with specimens reaching over 10 feet in diameter and 200 feet tall. These skyscrapers were probably around 500 years old or so, and had grown with the forest as it matured and changed in plant composition over the years.

Most of these sentinels were cut down, and many of the tulip poplars we see today are young trees in the process of recolonizing disturbed areas, a process at which they excel due to their rapid growth and love for sunlight. The large size and ease of cutting (compared to other hardwoods) of tulip poplars made them suitable for a wide range of applications for early cultures.

They tend to grow very straight,with few branches along the lower sections of the tree. Native Americans used tulip poplars to make large canoes, and early European explorers found their straight trunks perfect for cabin walls. It is also the preferred wood for the making of organs, and is resistant to the gnawing effects of termites.

Local wildlife rely heavily on tulip poplars throughout the year. Deer and other mammals feed on the foliage, and birds and squirrels savor their seeds. More than 25 moths and butterflies raise their young on tulip poplars, and the attractive flowers produce an abundance of nectar that feed basically any pollinator passing by. Honey bees are able to produce a popular honey from tulip poplars that packs its own unique flavor.

Growing a tulip poplar isn’t hard – chances are there is already one growing nearby. The most limiting factor for these trees in a landscape is their size, since there aren’t too many spaces for a 100-foot tree in the typical yard. That doesn’t mean you should immediately remove the young saplings you find sprouting up.

The vast majority of young tulip poplars are destroyed by wildlife browsing in their first few years, so chances are if you leave them standing you can feed wildlife while at the same time removing the tree. Growing the trees in full sun tends to keep them smaller than the giants found among forests, and they tend to be more manageable in such landscape settings.

Keep your young trees free of vines and cover the trunk with a fence or guard to protect against deer rubbing off the bark for the first few years.

After that, tulip poplars are about as maintenance free a tree as you can get.

Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at brannen.basham@gmail.com.