Identifying the Yellow Poplar Tree

Also called a tulip tree, learn how to identify the yellow poplar.

Yellow poplar tree with tulip-like flowers

Getty Images

Yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) is considered one of the tallest hardwood trees in North America. This large, deciduous tree is located in Zones 1-6. It grows best in moist soil on mountainous slopes and bottomlands. In terms of scientific taxonomy, it’s technically not a poplar but a member of the magnolia genus. 

Yellow poplar is commonly identified by its tulip-like flowers that emerge during springtime. There are also other identifying characteristics foresters can look for on their next nature walk. Here, we review the description, range, and uses of the yellow poplar tree.

Description and Identification

Yellow poplar flower

picture by la-ong / Moment / Getty Images

The yellow poplar tree is also called tulip tree, tulip poplar, white poplar, and whitewood. It is fast-growing and typically reaches heights between 80-100 feet. Some specimens can reach heights of 150 feet.

The trunks become massive in old age and deeply furrowed with thick bark. The tree maintains a straight trunk and generally does not form double or multiple leaders.

Yellow poplar has a unique leaf with four lobes separated by rounded notches, with a texture that's waxy and smooth. The fall color is gold to yellow and is more pronounced in the northern part of its range.

The scented, tulip-like, greenish-yellow flowers appear in mid-spring. However, the yellow poplar are not as ornamental as those of other flowering trees because the flowers tend to be very high up and far from view, and appear after the green foliage.

Natural Range

Yellow poplar has a vast range, growing in southern New England and west through southern Ontario and Michigan. They are found as south as Louisiana and in eastern to north-central Florida. The tree thrives in deep, well-drained soils that are rich in quality and located in forest coves and on lower mountain slopes.

According to the Southern Research Station at the USDA, yellow poplar thrives best in the Ohio River valley and in the mountainous regions of North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

Silviculture and Management

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) notes that although it is a "rather large tree" the yellow poplar can be planted on residential streets as long as they are on very large lots with plenty of soil for root growth and if they are set back 10 to 15 feet. They also should not be planted in large numbers and are best for "lining commercial entrances with lots of soil space."

While trees may be planted from containers, transplanting from a field nursery is best scheduled for spring. Plenty of water is needed for proper management. Because of summer drought conditions, yellow poplar may undergo premature defoliation.

Common Pests and Diseases

infested yellow-poplar leaf
Larval mine of yellow-poplar weevil.

Lacy L. Hyche / Auburn University /

Aphids can sometimes be an issue for yellow poplar trees. These insects suck the sap from trees and plants, and for yellow poplar, in particular, they may leave deposits of honeydew behind. The honeydew can lead to mold, and while this does not cause lethal damage, it can be difficult to deal with and treat. The USFS recommends horticultural oil sprays in the spring.

Yellow poplars are also not immune to funguses that cause rot, as well as stem cankers. Cankerous trees tend to be unhealthy due to drought, competition, or other poor environmental conditions. Any branches found with these problems should be pruned.

Another concern, leaf spots, are typically not serious enough to need chemical controls. However, if leaves have become heavily infected, it is too late to use chemical controls. The USFS recommended raking and getting rid of these infected leaves. They can be identified by their yellow spots.


Native Americans used the inner barks of the yellow poplar for medicinal purposes, including making cough syrup and as a remedy to treat arthritis and cholera.

The soft and light wood of the yellow poplar was hollowed out by early American settlers to use as canoes, and it has historically been a popular material in ship building.

Today, the wood is used for furniture and pallets. Yellow poplar is also valued as a honey tree, a source of wildlife food, and a shade tree for large areas. Because of its large size and shallow root structure, it's not suitable for smaller plots.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Is yellow poplar the same as tulip poplar?

    Yes, both tulip poplar and yellow poplar are common names for the species Liriodendron tulipifera.  Another common name is tulip tree.

  • Is yellow poplar good wood?

    Sometimes called tulipwood, it’s soft and light, and can be brittle but easily workable. Yellow poplar is is commonly used for siding, furniture, musical instruments, and other household goods. It has a pale and creamy yellowish color, and can be stained if a darker color is desired.

  • What is yellow poplar used for?

    Yellow poplars provide food and shelter for a number of animal and insect species. It’s a particularly valuable food source for honey bees. In late fall and into winter, its fruits provide food for squirrels.

    In landscaping, yellow poplars are used as shade trees in spacious lawns and parks thanks to their large size. Because of its fast growth rate, it is also planted in reforestation projects. Yellow poplar is harvested for its wood and for pulp to make paper.

View Article Sources
  1. Gilman, Edward F., and Dennis G. Watson. "Liriodendron tulipifera. Tuliptree." U.S. Forest Service. 1993.

  2. Gilman, Edward F., and Dennis G. Watson. "Liriodendron tulipifera. Tuliptree." U.S. Forest Service. 1993.

  3. Liriodendron tulipifera.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Plant Database, The University of Texas at Austin. 

  4. PLANT FACT SHEET: TULIP POPLAR.United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service.