Tulip tree: pruning, propagation & the most beautiful species


I study landscape ecology and through my studies have discovered a love for plants. Plants are not only beautiful, but also have countless fascinating survival strategies. To bring a bit of nature into my home as well, I nurture my houseplants and herbs on every possible windowsill.

Favourite fruit: rhubarb and all kinds of berries
Favourite vegetables: onions and garlic

The tulip tree is a beautiful plant, with flowers that look like tulips and gorgeous autumnal leaves. Here is a look at the different varieties of tulip tree and how to plant one at home!

Flowers and leaves of the tulip tree
The tulip tree has special flowers and leaves [Photo: Ilona5555/ Shutterstock.com]

The tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) comes from north east America, and was introduced to Britain in the mid-17th century, where it has been grown in parks and botanical gardens ever since. Here is everything you need to know about planting and maintaining tulip trees in the garden.

Origin, flowers and characteristics of the tulip tree

The deciduous tulip tree belongs to the magnolia family (Magnoliaceae), and is widespread in north east America. It is characterised by cupped flowers, which, as the name suggests, resemble tulips, and four-lobed, symmetrical leaves, which turn gold in autumn. The flowers display yellow-orange petals between May and June, and, once pollinated, the tree produces elongated, cone-like fruits. Tulip trees grow fast and, with a columnar crown, can reach up to 40 metres tall. They prefer to grow in deep, moist, humus-rich soil.

Tulip tree fruit
The tulip tree fruits look like cones [Photo: victimewalker/ Shutterstock.com]

Are tulip trees bee-friendly? Yes! They contain plenty of nectar and attract all sorts of insects including bees.

The most beautiful species and varieties of tulip tree

There are only two species of tulip tree; the Chinese tulip tree and the American (whitewood) tulip tree. Within these species, however, there are several varieties, each varying in form and size.

  • Chinese Tulip Tree (Liriodendron chinense): found in Asia, this variety, together with species Liriodendron tulipifera, forms the whole tulip tree genus (Liriodendron). This variety tends to be smaller than Liriodendron tulipifera trees, but does have large leaves.
  • Columnar Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera ‘Fastigiatum’): as the name suggests, this variety grows in a column. It is considerably smaller than the wild Liriodendron tulipifera, coming in at 15 to 18 metres tall, and has a 6 to 8 metre wide crown.
Tulip tree leaves
Liriodendron tulipifera ‘Aureomarginata’ has bicoloured foliage [Photo: P.S.Art-Design-Studio/ Shutterstock.com]
  • Yellow Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera ‘Aureomarginata’): at only 12 to 15 metres high, this variety remains substantially smaller and grows much more slowly than the wild Liriodendron tulipifera variety. Its dark green leaves are bordered with a light yellow-green.
  • Dwarf Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera ‘Ardis’): this variety only grows 8 to 9 metres tall and is therefore an ideal choice for smaller gardens.

Note: The African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata) is not actually related to Liriodendron; it belongs to the trumpet tree family (Bignoniaceae). However, it too has striking, cup-shaped flowers.

African Tulip Tree
The African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata) belongs to a different family [Photo: Tatiana Belova/ Shutterstock.com]

Planting the tulip tree: location and procedure

The tulip tree grows best in a wind-protected, sunny location. It requires loose, humus-rich soil, that is not too calcareous. Most importantly, the roots need plenty of room to spread.

If you plan to plant a tulip tree, do so in March and ensure that you use stakes to protect it from the wind, as this can hinder growth. Dig a hole twice as wide and deep as your tree’s root ball, add in a nutrient-rich, loose substrate, and mix in some garden soil. Our Plantura Organic All Purpose Compost is ideal for this. It contains all the necessary nutrients to promote healthy root development.

Whilst you are preparing your soil, place the tulip tree in a bucket of water so that the root ball can soak up some water.

Little Tulip Tree
Small tulip trees should be supported so that the wind does not cause damage [Photo: Peter Turner Photography/ Shutterstock.com]

Finally, give the soil in the hole a good soak, place the tulip tree in, and fill with a mix of garden soil and planting soil. Press everything down and create a watering rim using the excess soil so that you can water your tree effectively.

Tip: When purchased, tulip trees tend to have their roots pruned into the shape of a ball. This can mean the plant does not take in enough water. As such, be sure to prune the crown of the tree before planting it, so that the plant does not evaporate more water than it can take in.

The right care

A tulip tree’s soil should be kept as moist as possible, especially in its first few weeks of growth and its first summer. A layer of bark mulch will protect the soil from drying out in summer. However, it is important to avoid waterlogging.

Tip: During its first growth phase, it is a good idea to protect your tulip tree from pests with a fleece.

Autumn leaves of the tulip tree
For magnificent autumn foliage, the tulip tree should be well supplied with water, sun and nutrients [Photo: Kuki Ladron de Guevara/ Shutterstock.com]

Fertilising and watering tulip trees

Tulip trees need plenty of water to produce lots of foliage and beautiful flowers, so ensure that your tree has enough water during the drier summer months.

In late spring, give your young tree some fertiliser. A slow-release fertiliser, like our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food is ideal. It provides tulip trees with essential nutrients, and is easy to apply. Simply sprinkle the fertiliser over the soil and work it in gently. If you cover the soil with a layer of mulch, the fertiliser will be even more effective. Fine roots close to the soil’s surface are very sensitive, so be careful not to damage them.

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All Purpose Plant Food, 1.5kg
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Tulip tree pruning

Tulip trees naturally develop a crown, so you do not need to prune them. In fact, the trees are quite sensitive to being cut, so it is best to choose the right sized tree for your garden before planting. That way, the plant can grow without human intervention. The only time this rule does not apply is in spring, when diseased or dead branches can be removed.

Tulip tree not flowering

Tulip trees tend to take 20 to 30 years to blossom, so you will need a little a patience! However, without enough water, space and light, or if the tree is pruned too much, it may never blossom. As such, it is important that you select the right location for your tree, and care for it well.

Transplanting a tulip tree

It is generally a bad idea to transplant Liriodendron tulipifera. The roots are very sensitive and tend to grow deep. However, if you do decide to transplant your tree, dig deep! Otherwise, you might damage some of your tree’s roots. For very large trees, start early. Dig around the root ball or dig a trench and install a root barrier a year before you plan to transplant the tree. This helps the tree roots develop close to the trunk, which creates a denser root ball. The denser the root ball, the easier it is for the plant to grow in a new location.

Transplant your tulip tree in spring. And as before, make sure that the crown is not much larger than the root ball, otherwise the tree will lose too much water.

Tulip Tree Flower
The flowers appear at the earliest when the tree is 15 years old [Photo: Iva Vagnerova/ Shutterstock.com]

How to grow tulip trees

Propagating a tulip tree is not easy and requires a lot of patience. Tulip tree seeds are hard to come by – they are rarely sold. However, it is possible to harvest the seeds from an existing tree.

You can raise seedlings from September on a windowsill or in a warm greenhouse. Scatter the seeds onto growing soil, moisten and cover with cling film. Be sure to keep the seeds at around 20 to 26°C.

It is also possible to propagate a tulip tree from a cutting, though this method is often unsuccessful. If you are up for the challenge, however, take some cuttings in June or July – remember to cut at an angle – from one-year-old shoots that grow close to the trunk and the ground. Put them in potting soil and keep them warm; 20 to 24°C is perfect. Cover your cuttings with a plastic bag and keep them moist.

Tulip tree crown
Even without pruning, the tulip tree develops an attractive crown [Photo: Grigorii Pisotsckii/ Shutterstock.com]

Is the tulip tree winter hardy?

Liriodendron tulipifera are winter hardy and do not need protecting from cold weather. The fruit is brown and tends to remain on the tree until winter, when it will fall to the ground.

Common pests and diseases of the tulip tree

The tulip tree is seldom affected by disease or pests. However, root rot can occur if the ground is too wet. Spots on the leaves are usually due to drought.

Poisonous tulip tree leaves
Not only the tulip tree leaves, but also all other parts of the plant are poisonous [Photo: zprecech/ Shutterstock.com]

Is the tulip tree poisonous?

All parts of the tulip tree are poisonous, both to humans and animals. Take small children and animals to a doctor or vet if you suspect they have ingested any part of the plant.

Magnolia and tulip trees belong to the same plant family. Despite not being the same tree, both have impressive flowers. Find out how to plant and care for magnolias here.

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