True blue, rare in flowers, is easily obtainable in bog sage

Jimmy Williams

In 1947, some powers-that-be decided to name the tulip poplar, aka yellow poplar, the state tree.

Considering this tree’s heritage, contribution to our state and the fact it is a native American, it was an appropriate choice. 

On the other hand, such a choice has encouraged people across the state to plant one (or more) on home sites, some almost at the front door, to their regret. 

Incidentally, the yellow poplar is not a poplar at all, but botanically Liriodendron tulipifera, and is closely akin to the magnolias.

The flower superficially resembles a tulip, thus the common name, tulip poplar.

Many people are confused by the name “tulip tree,” which is commonly used in reference to the spring flowering magnolias, whose flowers resemble large tulips.

Thus, we have the fallacy of attempting identification using common names only. 

Anyhow, back to the first point, the appropriateness of making the yellow poplar, as per its value as a timber tree and prolificness in our forests, our state tree. 

Poplar wood has been used for making furniture for hundreds of years.

In finer grades of furniture, it is the secondary wood of the piece, but has also been used for the outside of, say, a chest or pie safe. 

Timber of poplar brings good prices even today, and our woods are rife with poplar trees.

It was used in log houses in the past, as it yields to hewing and shaping extremely well, and yellow poplar is said to be resistant to termites.

Though classed as a hardwood, it is relatively soft, making it easy to work. 

So much for the qualities that made it acceptable as the state tree. The downsides are abundant when one is planted in your yard. 

True, yellow poplar grows fast, making it appeal to impatient folks. However, the price to pay for that speed is brittle wood that breaks easily under ice or at the hand of wind.

Some 40 years ago, before I knew any better, I planted a yellow poplar just back of our deck. It has provided shade for that part of our property for the past 30 years or so.

It has also provided falling dead, inner-growth sticks and seeds that germinate at a rate of about 110 percent. They sprout incessantly in our rock gardens, borders and between sidewalk cracks. 

The gone-over petals of the flowers, which, incidentally, appear high in the branches and can only be seen from a helicopter, are messy as well.

The most prevalent problem, however, is the brittle wood.

A few weeks ago, the latest of a series of broken limbs crashed into one of our borders, smashing hydrangeas, hostas, phloxes and more during a thunderstorm.

The limb was some six inches in diameter and fell out of the very top of the tree, now some 60 feet tall. It was a considerable job cleaning it up on a particularly hot and humid day. 

Despite its frailties, the yellow poplar is planted widely as a shade tree and has been for a long time.

The biggest one I have ever seen, and maybe the world’s record for the species, was in England and was planted some 200 years ago.

It is just one of the many things for which the Brits can thank the Yanks.


JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Mondays at 642-1162.

Load comments