Behold the tuliptree. Behold a future forest.
Liriodendron tulipifera, commonly called yellow or tulip poplar, is the tallest and one of the oldest hardwoods in North America, with specimens in the Appalachians recorded at almost 200 feet tall and more than 500 years old. Their trunks are remarkably straight, even in dense forest, with a grey bark that is smooth when young and deeply grooved in older trees. The crowns branch and leaf out in a pleasingly symmetrical fashion. The lumber, sold as poplar, is yellowish-green and fine-grained, light and easily worked.
Tuliptrees bloom in the spring, as the songbird migration is trailing off and tanagers and warblers are settling in the still-translucent canopy. Pokeweed and curly dock are surging up out of the ground. The wind is moving in gusts and riffles and with it the pollen of flowers by the score: carpets of bright yellow ragwort, prodigious white clover, chickweeds and plantains and bluets in the verges and less-kempt lawns. Tuliptree blossoms can be hard to see, growing as they do at the tops of some of the tallest trees, and emerging well after the leaves, which are, considerately, shaped like tulips as well. But they are worth beholding if you can find a young blooming sapling, or a low-hanging branch, or one blown to the ground during a storm. The flowers are a bit like wide-open tulips, yellow and cup-shaped, but on the inside each petal (technically called “tepals,” midway between a petal and a leaf) is painted bright orange, surrounding a pale green cone. It is as if someone took oversized candy corn and smashed them flat, then arranged them in a kind of silken bowl.
Tuliptree’s devotees are many and distinguished. At Nomini Hall, the Virginia plantation where John Fea’s favorite Revolutionary era tutor Philip Vickers Fithian lived, “Poplar Avenue” was a promenade of tuliptrees. In July 1774 he went walking with Mrs. Carter near Poplar Avenue. “How sweet, & pure the Air is,” she exclaimed, “how much the weather resembles September!” In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” (1843), “an enormously tall tulip-tree” plays a central role in marking the spot where Captain Kidd’s treasure is buried. Poe goes to the trouble to give the tree’s Latin name and the superlative “most magnificent of American foresters.” Thomas Jefferson called it “the Juno of our Groves” when he sent some seeds to his friend Madame de Tesse of Paris. He helped make the tree’s reputation in Europe, where it has been a popular ornamental since Jefferson’s day.
Two tuliptrees stood sentinel at the corners of Jefferson’s home long after his death. They were prized trees, topped and pruned and cabled and otherwise coddled until the early 2000s, when Monticello’s groundskeepers determined that both trees threatened the house itself and had to be removed. The tree’s remains were disposed of with great care. They sent one section to a dendrochronologist to determine if it the tree really dated to Jefferson’s time. (It did.) Some pieces were preserved for display at Monticello. One was hewn into a salt trough. A pair of Virginia luthiers built a guitar. A wood artist made some stunning bowls. There’s a poignant internet artifact on the Monticello website, a video made by professional photographer with music by Sigur Rós, the Icelandic group that earned a following in early 2000s for their earnest falsetto, melodic orchestration, and bespoke nonsensical language called “Vonleska” or “Hopelandic.” The phonemes and vocables, full of pathos and yearning, supposedly allowed listeners to write their own meaning into the songs. The video, not quite two minutes, is a wordless elegy for Monticello Tuliptree II, consisting entirely of set shots of the tuliptree, from various angles and distances, in June 2011, just before the arborists came in to saw and winch and section.
There is something particular about how tuliptrees’ leaves respond to breezes. One of the camera shots zooms in on the tree’s upper branches. The leaves move in the wind as the leaves of all trees do, but Monticello Tuliptree II’s leaves tremble and flutter, rotating slightly on their footstalks. As Donald Culross Peattie noticed long ago, they “are forever turning and rustling in the slightest breeze” and providing “an air of liveliness lightening its grandeur.” It’s worth noting that Fithian and Mrs. Carter enjoyed the atmosphere provided by the tuliptrees on Poplar Avenue—”how sweet, & pure the Air is”—as much as the trees themselves. Tuliptrees revel in the wind. They don’t tell us where the wind comes from or where it is going, but it does make its passage visible to us—if we are looking.
Trees shape our experience of light. In early spring the tender young leaves turn sunlight pale green. In autumn, maples and hickories and tuliptrees seem to turn the very air golden in the slanted sunlight at the start or close of a day. In late autumn, the leaves of tuliptree linger. They grow as big as a man’s hand and turn deep yellow with brown mottling, like a ripe banana. On the forested edges of roads and fields, amid evergreen redcedars, dark-limbed callery pear and hickory, and grey tangles of wild grape, tuliptree leaves look like embers of a dying fire, or like guttering candles, flickering in the cold winter wind. And then they fall to the ground and the trees stand bare and still. And so, too, will we, very soon. Tuliptrees in late autumn illustrate that part of autumn’s charm is its ambivalence, the harvest-feast celebration of life combined with the somber contemplation of darkness and dormancy and death.
But tuliptrees are also exceptionally vigorous plants. They exhibit epicormic growth, meaning their trunks are lined with dormant buds that can sprout and grow in response to injury. Only trees with epicormic potential can be coppiced (cut down to the stump and allowed to resprout) or pollarded (pruned at the top to promote dense branching). A tuliptree fell across the road near my house, and some road crew pushed into the ditch. Most trees would die and rot at this point, but this one has transformed itself into a ruler-straight row of young tuliptrees as the branches stand up straight from the trunk.
And seed production is prodigious. A tree twenty inches in diameter might produce nearly 30,000 viable seeds, and a whole stand of trees might yield 3.7 million seeds per hectare. Each conelike aggregate is composed of neat brown sections called carpels, like a woodcarving of a square dance skirt. Hurled from the treetops, these winged samaras can fly several hundred feet in a brisk wind. Some find purchase in disturbed areas and sprout up in great quantity, while others wait—a seed can lie dormant for up to seven years until something opens up the forest. A lot cleared for construction and allowed to fallow can sprout up in a miniature forest of tiny tulip trees within a season.
And in this way tuliptrees demarcate future forests. Wendell Berry, contemplating the latter days of the Vietnam War and the uncertain future of nuclear world powers, observed in 1968 that the country “is haunted / by the ghost of an old forest” that will return. “There will be / a resurrection of the wild. / Already it stands in wait / at the pasture fences.”
In that event, tuliptree will be one of the very first to move in.
William Thomas Okie is the author of The Georgia Peach: Culture, Agriculture, and Environment in the American South and “Amber Waves of Broomsedge.” He teaches history at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.