Relishing tulips and the tulip poplar

Published 9:50 pm Tuesday, May 24, 2016

There are tulips in the garden/There are tulips in the park/But the best type of tulips/Are two lips in the dark.”

— Anonymous

By Susan and Biff Andrews

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The Dutch have always been the quintessential growers of tulips — more than a billion a year.

A trip to Amsterdam in April is an overwhelming floral experience. More recently, the French have been “designing” new and mixed color strains. But the Dutch and French influence don’t concern us here.

Closer to home, Virginia is turning into a huge tulip grower. Fresh Tulips USA ships millions of cut tulips a year. And closer to home still, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester has any variety you’d care to buy. It’s worth a day trip there in the spring just to see the offerings.

But our favorite tulips don’t grow in the soil; they float down from above. The tallest trees in the Eastern U.S. are tulip poplar trees. They can grow to 190 feet and have a diameter of 12 feet. More commonly they grow 70 to 100 feet and may live 300 years, though one was dated 500 years.

They’re BIG.

They range from New England to Florida. As one might expect, they bloom in April to our south, in May here and in June to the north.

“The flowers are large, brilliant, and numerous. Their color is greenish yellow with dashes of red and orange, and their resemblance to a tulip is very marked. They do not droop from the spray but sit erect.” (Keeler, “Our Native Trees”)

We have two on our property. During the month of May, they are covered with these exotic-looking flowers. And then they start to drop. By the hundreds. And hundreds. Our small lawn is covered with whole blooms, petals and bits of branch — flowers and flower petals, as if someone were strewing the church aisle with petals at a wedding.

Perfect tulips drifting from above, creating a heavenly sight and the source of great joy and anticipation when the first blooms begin to emerge.

We’re not the only ones who appreciate them. We consider it to be the tree of life for much of our resident wildlife. Deer browse on the foliage when they can reach it. Bobwhites, purple finches, cottontails, squirrels and hummingbirds all love the leaves and blooms.

But their main draw, as far as we are concerned, is for tiger swallowtails. These beautiful trees serve as a favorite source of nectar, a place to lay eggs and a food source for their caterpillars.

They lay their eggs — small green balls — on the tops of the leaves, and the young black-and-white caterpillars and older green caterpillars feed on the leaves.

The Yellow Swallowtail’s image is the centerpiece of the logo for the Southside Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists, a group near and dear to our hearts and, most importantly, it is the state butterfly of Virginia.

So we surely love the tulip poplar.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at