Tulip Trees – Straight and Tall

These trees are big. A sign on the Caldwell Fork Trail says “Big Poplars” with an arrow, inviting hikers to visit the trees on a short spur trail.

Big Poplars on Caldwell Fork
Big Poplars on Caldwell Fork

“How many people do we need to encircle this tree?” I say. “Let’s hold hands all the way around.” Hikers climb on the tree roots and I take a picture of the group. Most are too engrossed in stretching their arms to the next person to realize that I’m taking photos of their butts. Holding on to people on either side of you with your whole body plastered against the poplar is uncomfortable and unsteady. They let go and return to eat their lunches.

Yellow-poplars or tuliptrees were the most commercially valuable tree in the Southern Appalachians. Lumber companies never clear-cut the Cataloochee valley in what became Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The area was too remote for them and many landowners didn’t allow mass scale logging, so it’s not difficult to find tall and hefty trees. Tuliptrees are always big but these on Caldwell Fork are huge. It takes six adults to encircle this tree, which at its widest is estimated to be 25 feet around.

Tuliptrees grow fast and straight, the first tree to come up after an area is clear-cut. Indians made their canoes out of a single tree. When the British came over, they used tuliptrees for ship masts. No wonder they wanted to hold on to the colonies. Settlers cut down tuliptrees to build their houses and barns. It was the wood of choice to build church organs. Even now, tuliptrees are used for furniture, doors and window sashes.

The leaves have an unusual shape, with broad at the tip and base, almost forming a square, with four lobes. The large flowers, with six green petals with orange at the base, look like tulips. In the spring, they litter the ground. The distinctive leaf turns a beautiful golden yellow in the fall.

The unique leaves and flowers make the tree very easy to identify. I can’t tell a chestnut oak from a white oak without a good field guide but there’s no question about tuliptrees. Maybe that’s why it’s my favorite tree in the mountains.

Last summer, I was on a hike in the hills of Monterey with Family Nature Summits, an intergenerational camp. The group walked through forests of California giant redwood trees, which are much taller and broader than tuliptrees; everything in California is bigger. When we arrived at our lunch spot, I tried to gather willing hikers to hold hands around a huge specimen.

“It’s not a great idea to stand on tree roots,” Dave, the leader, whispered to me.” This will stress out the redwood.” Yikes! I didn’t think of this. No more handholding around the Cataloochee trees either.

PS I decided not to put a picture of hikers encircling the tuliptrees.

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