|Drawing of tulip tree flower and leaves|
June days in all their glory bring a new pleasure—the tulip tree flower. The tulip or tulip poplar tree, Linodendron tulipfera, is a giant tree that often grows to more than 100 feet tall. Although it is called a poplar, it is in fact in the magnolia family. It is a fast-growing hard wood tree with wood that can be used for furniture, flooring, and even house building and siding. I was delighted to come across one of these giants in Riverside Park near 79thstreet. I bent my head back and saw that it was filled with flowers—the flowers range from yellow to light green with orange segments in the middle as you can see in my drawing above. Flowers first appear when the tree is a pre-teen or young teen of somewhere between ten and fifteen years of age. It can be hard to see the flowers because they are up quite high, but it is a real treat to come across them. There is a large stand of close to twenty huge tulip trees in the walkway leading to the LuEsther T. Mertz Library at the New York Botanical Garden-- by the way one of the world’s biggest botanical libraries and worth a visit for its amazing holdings and the tulip trees that line the way to it. After the trees bloom, many of the flowers drop and can be found on the ground and looked at in more detail. The tree actually gets its name because of the resemblance between tulip flowers and tulip tree flowers. The flowers produce about a tablespoon of nectar per flower. Bees love the nectar and beekeepers love the poplar honey that is produced—strong tasting, healthy, and delicious. The flowers have also been made into an ointment to treat burns and other skin ailments.
The bark of the tulip tree at one time was thought to have a medicinal value as well. The bark was boiled in water and the tea produced was used to treat typhoid and malaria as an alternative to quinine. The inner bark was used to treat rheumatism and arthritis as was the bark from some of the other trees in the magnolia family.
As far as we know, the oldest living tulip tree, the Queens Giant, is in Alley Pond Park in Bayside, Queens, New York. The tree is thought to be between 400 and 450 years old and it is over 134 feet tall with a girth of 18.6 feet. Even though it is huge, it may not be easy to find and that is purposeful. Former Parks Commisoner Adrian Benepe said, “There is something to be said leaving it in a bit of obscurity. It’s part of the reason it has survived this long. If everyone is attracted to it, it increases the chance of something bad happening to it.” If you happen to come upon it, you will see a sign that says: “It was standing tall when General George Washington passed close by in 1790 on a tour of Long Island, and it was most likely a young tree when the Dutch East India Company sent a group of Walloon families to Manhattan in 1624.” Perhaps its longevity through the ups and downs, the tragedies and celebrations, the storms and weather changes can give us some hope, optimism, and beauty in these difficult times.