By Stephanie Dyer

Tall, dark and historically handsome, meet the showy yellow poplar or tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera).

In 1882 Joseph Baynes, a progressive farmer, planted a tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) on the grounds of the historic Baynesfield Estate, near Richmond in KwaZulu-Natal. This tree, which is still there today, has grown into a giant of 34m in height, with a stem diameter of 2.04m at breast height and a crown diameter of 26.02m.

When Baynes died in 1925, he left the farm in trust for the benefit of all South Africans. The estate and its trees are definitely worth a visit when in the area. Apart from the historic homestead, there is also a museum which includes vintage engines, agricultural implements and tractors.

The genus name Liriodendron is derived from the Greek words for ‘lily’ and ‘tree’, referring to the showy lily-like flowers. The specific epithet is an old generic name meaning ‘tulip-bearing’. The tree belongs to the Magnolia family.

This tall, stately, deciduous tree has a natural distribution in Eastern USA, from New England through New York to Michigan, Louisianna and Florida. In their natural habitat, tulip trees grow 30 to 45m in height, with trunk diameters of 2.4 to 3m. A straight stem, free of branches, of 12 to 15m can be obtained.

In South Africa, the tree usually grows to a height of 10m, but the maximum height recorded is 34m – the iconic Baynesfield tulip tree. The tree is frost-hardy. It is grown in South Africa in botanical and private gardens, mainly as an ornamental tree. The tree has a brown to purplish bark, a spreading to intermediate crown, with dense, dark green foliage, which displays golden yellow autumn tints.

The flowers and leaves make the tree particularly attractive. The showy flower resembles a tulip or lily, with petals that are greenish towards the tips and orange-yellow at the base. The leaves are used for fodder and the nectar and pollen of the flowers are used by honey bees.

The wood produced by this magnificent tree is a lightweight hardwood with a fine texture. The light yellow to brown heartwood turns greenish upon exposure and the sapwood is creamy white. The grain is usually straight, but sometimes displays attractive blister figuring (figure that has fairly short raised sections).

The timber has low to moderate strength properties and good stability. It is ideal for building organs and is also suitable for many other applications, including model building, furniture, core stock for pianos and cabinets, doors, shelving, boxes and crates, baskets, veneer, pulpwood, carving and turnery. Great amounts of yellow poplar are also used for shipping pallets.

Hard facts: yellow poplar

Timber drying schedule for yellow poplar

Legend: DB = Dry bulb temperature RH = Relative humidity

Please note: Drying schedules only serve as a guide to the kiln operator, with the response of the timber to the drying condition being the criterion.


Credit: Timber Drying Institute