Identifying the Yellow Poplar Tree in North America

Yellow poplar tree

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Yellow poplar or tulip poplar is the tallest hardwood tree in North America with one of the most perfect and straight trunks in the forest. Yellow poplar has a unique leaf with four lobes separated by rounded notches.

The showy flower is tulip-like (or lily-like) which supports the alternate name of tulip poplar. The soft and light wood was hollowed out by early American settlers to use as canoes. Today's wood is used for furniture and pallets.

The tulip poplar grows 80 feet to 100 feet tall, and trunks become massive in old age, becoming deeply furrowed with thick bark. The tree maintains a straight trunk and generally does not form double or multiple leaders.

Tuliptree has a moderate to rapid (on good sites) growth rate at first but slows down with age. The softwood reportedly is subject to storm damage but the trees held up remarkably well in the South during Hurricane Hugo. It is probably stronger than given credit for.

The largest trees in the east are in the Joyce Kilmer Forest in North Carolina, some reaching more than 150 feet with 7-foot-diameter trunks. The fall color is gold to yellow, being more pronounced in the northern part of its range. The scented, tulip-like, greenish-yellow flowers appear in mid-spring but are not as ornamental as those of other flowering trees because they are far from view.

Description and Identification

Tulip tree leaf
Tulip tree's unique leaf.

Steve Nix

Common Names: tuliptree, tulip-poplar, white-poplar, and whitewood
Habitat: Deep, rich, well-drained soils of forest coves and lower mountain slopes
Description: One of the most attractive and tallest of eastern hardwoods. It is fast-growing and may reach 300 years old on deep, rich, well-drained soils of forest coves and lower mountain slopes.
Uses: Yellow poplar is valued as a honey tree, a source of wildlife food, and a shade tree for large areas.

Natural Range

Yellow poplar tree distribution map
Distribution map of Liriodendron tulipifera.

Elbert L. Little, Jr./U.S. Geological Survey/Wikimedia Commons

Yellow poplar grows throughout the Eastern United States from southern New England, west through southern Ontario and Michigan, south to Louisiana, then east to north-central Florida.

It is most abundant and reaches its largest size in the valley of the Ohio River and on the mountain slopes of North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

The Appalachian Mountains and adjacent Piedmont running south from Pennsylvania to Georgia contained 75% of all yellow poplar growing stock in 1974.​​

Silviculture and Management

Yellow poplar flower

picture by la-ong/Moment/Getty Images

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," the fact sheet notes.

"Trees can be planted from containers at any time in the south but transplanting from a field nursery should be done in spring, followed by faithful watering," the Forest Service notes, continuing:

"Plants prefer well-drained, acid soil. Drought conditions in summer can cause premature defoliation of interior leaves which turn bright yellow and fall to the ground, especially on newly-transplanted trees. The tree may be short-lived in parts of USDA hardiness zone 9, although there are a number of young specimens about two feet in diameter in the southern part of USDA hardiness zone 8b. It is usually recommended only for moist sites in many parts of Texas, including Dallas, but has grown in an open area with plenty of soil space for root expansion near Auburn and Charlotte without irrigation where the trees are vigorous and look nice."

Insects and Diseases

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

Lacy L. Hyche/Auburn University/

Insects: The USFS fact sheet reads,

"Aphids, particularly Tuliptree aphid, can build up to large numbers, leaving heavy deposits of honeydew on lower leaves, cars, and other hard surfaces below. Black, sooty mold may grow on the honeydew. Although this does little permanent damage to the tree, the honeydew, and sooty mold can be annoying. Tuliptree scales are brown, oval and may be first seen on lower branches. Scales deposit honeydew which supports the growth of sooty mold. Use horticultural oil sprays in spring before plant growth begins. Tuliptree is considered resistant to gypsy moth."

Diseases: The USFS fact sheet notes that the tree is attacked by several cankers, and infected, girdled branches die back from the tip to the point of infection. Infected branches should be pruned out to keep trees healthy.

Leaf spots, however, are typically not serious enough to need chemical controls. However, after leaves have become heavily infected, it is too late to use chemical controls.

"Rake up and dispose of infected leaves. Leaves often fall during summer and litter the ground with yellow, spotted leaves. Powdery mildew causes a white coating on the leaves and is not usually harmful."