Arboretum: Liriodendron chinense, Chinese tulip tree
Many plants native to the Northeast have a counterpart in Eastern Asia. The tulip tree, or Liriodendron tulipifera, is no exception. Among the samples that intrepid English plant explorer E. H. Wilson brought home from China in 1901 was Liriodendron chinense, the Chinese tulip tree. Liriodendron, from the Greek leiron meaning lily and dendron meaning tree, refers to the lily-like form of the tree’s flower. Chinense is from the Latin and means of Chinese origin. The tree was placed in the Magnoliaceae or magnolia family, and the bark emits a lemon fragrance when scratched, a common trait to plants in that family.
Liriodendron chinense is a fast grower, very much like our native tulip tree, but it won’t reach the height of the native which can be well over 100 feet. Therefore it’s more useful in the home landscape where you wouldn’t want such a behemoth tree swaying overhead and attracting lightning, A woodland tree, it likes full sun to light shade and moist but well-drained soil.
Another difference from our native species is more obvious. The leaf has deeper indentations, or sinuses. Leaf color is bright green and stays more greenish yellow in the fall; our native usually has a clear yellow fall color
Both trees have cream-colored flowers with yellow orange centers that open in May or early June high up in the canopy. The resulting clusters of fruit resemble a cone and split into winged seed pods or samaras, making a mess in some people’s eyes. The woody spike left behind on the tip of the branch is a good identification trait in winter.
Several young specimens of Liriodendron chinense are planted on the campus of Haverford College as part of the Denis Asian Garden and the Gertrude Teaf Memorial Japanese Garden. Located next to the Dining Center, the trees can easily be compared to our native Liriodendron tulipifera trees in the nearby woods.
Martha Van Artsdalen