This site is for people who like plants -- growers, enthusiasts, aesthetes, novices and professionals, those who appreciate wild things and those who appreciate the cultivated. I garden in Chelsea, and I've been visiting people's yards for 20+ years in the course of my work. My goal is to make this blog a community project, so if you share my interests, please consider becoming a participant and contributing content -- Guerin. Info:

Monday, June 11, 2012

Chinese tulip-tree meets his cousin after million-year separation

A submission from plant expert Tony Reznicek:
Many people realize that the closest relatives of many of our distinctive and unusual deciduous forest plants occur not nearby, or even on the same continent, but on the opposite side of the globe in temperate southeast Asia (China, Japan, and Korea). The list is long, but one of the most striking is that fact that there are only two tulip trees in the world. Our eastern North American (and Michigan) native, and one in China (and northern Vietnam). After waiting for years, this spring was the first flowering for my small Chinese tulip tree, Liriodendron chinense
This is a smaller tree than our native Liriodendron tulipifera, very rare and mostly subtropical in China. The hardiest forms from the northernmost colonies can survive in southern Michigan, but it is exceedingly rare in cultivation. But while it is fun to see the first flowers, compared to our native, they are less attractive. The flowers lack the orange flare on the petals, and they are smaller and duller. That's not a big deal -- nobody really grows tulip trees just for their flowers since they are borne high in the tree, and when the leaves are fully expanded. But the Chinese species does have much larger, more strikingly cleft, leaves which are often purplish tinged when expanding. And besides, you could ask the same question of stamp collectors who treasure the rare misprinted stamps, like ones with the image upside down. They are very rare and so is the Chinese tulip tree. Besides, it is amazing to think of how similar the two species are despite having been separated for many millions of years on opposite sides if the earth, and why this should be. What is so special about tulip trees that their form has not changed despite such a long period with different histories?


  1. A world-traveling ecologist wrote me the following: I have pictures of the Chinese tulip tree in the mountains of China, but I was never able to visit a locality where they grow--too remote. They are very rare and in the mountains at moderate elevations of central to western China, as far as I know (but)I've not looked for the species on the China plant database. I was in Nanjing in 1982 when the Chinese at the Forestry University were making crosses between the American and the Chinese species. Similar to the Japanese red maple, the Chinese tulip tree appears to be very rare in east Asia, whereas our species are widespread in geography.

  2. Paul Bairley writes: The Tulip Tree has always been one of my favorite eastern U.S. tree species - very grandiose in form and size, whether in an ideal natural habitat or as a feature landscape specimen. I recall a few in the Smokies that were so impressive that they seemed to have their own spiritual force. Three of use could not reach arms around these dentrological giants - but the energy was undeniable. It's rather special to see a tall-growing shade tree with showy flowers to begin with (forgive me, Magnolia grandiflora fans), and with such distinctive leaves, towering heights and incredibly straight trunks, they provides a majesty that is wonderful to behold. Even it's scientific name is lyrical - Liriodendron tulipifera - literally, "the lily tree that bears tulips." Now, finally, learning about this Chinese cousin is most enlightening; I've always thought that one of the special things about tulip trees is that the genus contains only one species throughout the world. Glad to hear I'm wrong about that, and thanks so much for posting the photos and botanical info!

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