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Johnny Molloy

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Respect the mighty tulip tree

July 11th, 2013 8:35 am by Johnny Molloy

Respect the mighty tulip tree

On the north slope of our mountain coves, you may pass numerous tulip trees. It is the state tree of Tennessee. Tulip trees were once more commonly known as poplars. It still goes by the name yellow poplar. The correct name of the tree comes from the shape of its leaves, which resemble the outline of a tulip flower.
Tulip trees are easy to identify in several ways. First, you have the tulip-shaped leaves. These leaves will turn yellow in fall. When you walk through a grove of tulip trees the yellow leaves will cast a memorable hue upon the autumn landscape. The trunk of a tulip tree grows remarkably straight no matter whether it is on a steep slope or if it is growing on a level, former farm field. The furrowed bark is a distinctive dark gray.
In spring, tulip trees will develop some of the largest tree flowers you will see. The yellow cup-shaped center of the flower is bordered by rounded green petals.
Tulip trees grow throughout the Volunteer State. Some of the largest of them all thrive in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Albright Grove Nature Trail near Cosby is one place to see some giants. It would take several hikers with hands linked together to completely encircle some of the biggest tulip trees. By the way, these massive tulip trees were significant reasons the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established. Despite being widespread, tulip trees rarely grow above 4,500 feet in elevation.
The native range of tulip trees extends northeast to Rhode Island west to the southern half of Michigan and all the way down south to Louisiana and Florida. Old-growth tulip trees are among the most massive living things in the forest. They can reach heights of 200 feet and have a trunk 10 feet in diameter.
Pioneers actually used hollowed out tulip tree trunks as temporary homes when they settled wild regions. They also hollowed out tulip trees for use as long and light canoes. This required a lot of chopping and burning to hollow out the tree to create a boat.
Pioneers also sought out level areas covered with tulip trees. They considered the soil under groves of tulip trees to be rich. Fields were created by a process known as “deadening.” The tulip trees were girdled, which killed them over time. They were left standing to cure. Farmers simply tilled around the standing trees. After being cured, the tulip trees were then felled and used around the farm, ultimately leading to an open field or pasture.
Tulip trees are valued as a commercial hardwood. Tulip trees are used for furniture, boxes, musical instruments and in cabinetry.  It is also used as pulpwood. The wood, when seasoned, burns hot and even. I am always happy to run into some fallen tulip trees when gathering wood for a campfire, though its smoke has no distinctive smell, as does cedar, white pine or some other trees.
Interestingly, tulip trees have been introduced into Europe from America. English colonists, returning to the Old World, thought highly of the tulip tree. Tulip trees have also been widely planted on the west coast of the United States. We are lucky to have such magnificent life growing naturally in our state of Tennessee.

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