Curio Cabinet: Tulip Poplar Seedhead

CC tuliptree seed

The Curio Cabinet series (#curioTuesday) is published biweekly, featuring an artifact of natural or cultural history and a brief selection of nifty facts. Curio Cabinet celebrates the history of curio collections, the roots of which played a part in the globalization of learning and scientific knowledge. Learn more here.

Today’s curio: Tulip Poplar seedhead
Type: Plant
Origin: Southern Pennsylvania, USA
Size: seedhead is approximately 4 inches long and 1.5 inches at widest point

This is the very cool seedpod of the tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), also known as a tulip tree or yellow poplar. In fact, this tree is not a poplar at all, but is instead in the Magnolia family. As autumn and winter progresses, each of the seeds (which kind of look like petals to me) will wiggle off and fall to the ground.

L tulipifera

This magnificent (admitted author bias) native of eastern North America is valuable to honey bees, the Eastern Swallowtail butterfly and Tuliptree Silkmoth (for which it is a host species), and even hummingbirds. According to accounts written in 1942 and 1975, both the Cherokee and Rappahannock used this tree for  lumber, as its trunk tends to be long and towering (perfect for canoes) and for medicine. The Cherokee used it for infant cholera, to treat pinworms, as a poultice, as a cough syrup ingredient, and for fever. The Rappahannock used Liriodendron as a stimulant.

Both the flowers and the leaves of Liriodendron are unique and beautiful. The flowers are tulip-like, hence the tree’s common names, but sport lime-yellow petals with an electric orange spot on each. According to the US Forest Service, the flowers from a 20-year old tree produce enough nectar to make 4 pounds of honey. The tricky thing, however, is that the trees are so tall you typically will miss the bloom unless you’re out at the right time (April through June) and spot one that’s fallen from the canopy.

The tulip-like flower of Liriodendron tulipifera, via Wiki

The leaves have four lobes and are easily identifiable – I was taught to recognize these leaves by seeing them as a “cat’s face.” Can you see it?

Tulip poplar leaf from

One last photo for you outdoor lovers – I took this one last January as a pop quiz for identifying which trees could be determined to be in that area just from the photo. If you’re just looking at leaves, you will miss it:  Liriodendron seeds are there, too, circled in white.

tulip tree seeds

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Posted on June 17, 2014, in Curio Collection and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. So that’s what that thing is! I found one last winter and I was amazed by this wooden flower. I appreciate the explanation. :)

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