Species Spotlight: Tuliptree

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Rock Creek Park

Trees get wiped out, and what’s an eastern U.S. forest to do? Never fear, the tuliptree is here to fill the sunny gaps!


Created by Erin Ziegler, Explore Natural Communities Intern Summer 2015, NatureServe.

Sounds: Tree Fall, recorded by Daniel Simion (soundbible.com).

Music: Daily Beetle, by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: Attribution 3.0

Photo: Tuliptree Leaves and Flowers, by Gary Fleming. Licensed under Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0

Liriodendron tulipifera


Podcast time: 1:29 minutes

The disturbance is over. The fire has cleared, the loggers have left with their chainsaws, or whatever has caused the trees to die has passed. There are a lot of ways that a forest might lose a patch of trees. While it’s sad to see them fall, things won't stay bleak for long.

Tuliptrees (Liriodendron tulipifera) love sunlight and can't get their start without plenty of light reaching the forest floor. As a pioneer species, these trees are among the first to spring up whenever something destroys part of the forest and creates an opening for the sunlight.

The young tuliptrees seize this chance to reclaim the land, and grow a new patch of forest over the disturbance. Tuliptrees, also known as tulip poplar, grow best in moist, rich soils, such as the floodplain along Rock Creek. In Rock Creek Park, tuliptrees are found in plant communities like the Tuliptree Small-Stream Flood-Plain Forest, where disturbances are common.

As they fill in the disturbed land, the trees begin to live up to their namesake—the tulips. Their tulip-shaped leaves fill in the canopy, while high up in the branches of mature tuliptrees, huge yellow and orange flowers look a bit like tulips, too. The flowers not only fill the canopy with beauty but also supply an important food source for the residents of the forest, like hummingbirds and pollinator bees. The trunk of the tuliptree supplies another kind of food—tasty sap for the drilling yellow-bellied sapsucker.

The tuliptree's flowers produce hundreds of seeds, each with one wing. Seeds are arranged in a tight spiral until the wind blows them free, spinning them away to lie in wait for a new patch of sunlight on the forest floor.

The forest is recovering, new trees are coming in, and the animals are coming home. As the land becomes lush and green again, look up at the towering tuliptrees and enjoy the pioneer that's brought beauty to this once-disturbed land.

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