Wood of the Month:

Multi-Personality Poplar Has Many Names, Many Uses

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

FAMILY NAME

Liriodendron tulipifera of the Family Magnoliaceae.

COMMON NAMES

Poplar, yellow poplar, tulip poplar, tulipwood, popple, tulip tree, American whitewood, canary whitewood, hickory poplar, canoewood and saddletree.

HEIGHT/WEIGHT

Trees vary in height, but can grow to 200 ft, averaging between 100 and 150 ft tall, with trunks of 8 to 10 ft in diameter. Average weight is 31 lbs per cubic foot, with a gravity of 0.51.

PROPERTIES

Material kiln dries well and easily and will air dry without problems. It has small movement in service. The wood is generally non-durable, low bending and glues very well. Other wood properties include: straight grain, medium to fine texture, resistance to shock loads, low stiffness, medium crushing strength with medium steam-bending classification, and small tendency to split when nailed.

It is easy to find good things to say about poplar.

The domestic tree offers lumber that is affordable, in good supply and works well with both hand and machine tools. The tree also yields veneer and can produce a very dramatic burl occasionally. The wood has an even texture, light to medium weight and is stable when dried. It takes and holds paint, enamel and stain well.

If there is a downside, it is that the wood, which is white to yellowish in color, sometimes has a green tinge or blue mineral stains.

The diverse uses for poplar are mirrored by the number of names to which poplar is referred. This month, we will clarify the naming confusion and examine poplar’s potential uses.

The Name Game

Poplar trees go by a long list of aliases and other, non-related trees also share the name poplar, so it is often best to include the botanical reference. The list of common names for Liriodendron tulipifera include tulip poplar and tulip tree. In this case, the common name is derived from the Latin and Greek roots.

In the book “Know Your Woods,” author Albert Constantine Jr. explains the origins for the tulip tree name. The root, “lirio,” comes from the Greek word “leiron,” for lily. “Dendron” means tree; “tulip” refers to the scientific name for the tulip, or Tulipa; and “ferum” means to bear. “Thus, we have the lily tree, which bears tulips, a reference to the lovely tulip-like flowers of this stately native tree,” he says.

Author Donald Culross Peattie tackled an explanation of the various names in his book, “A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America.” “The lumberman calls it ‘yellow poplar’ or just plain ‘poplar,’ though it is no sort of poplar at all. To him, tulipwood means a tropical cabinet wood, so to do business with him, one must use his terms.”

Culross Peattie says people in rural areas often prefer the term “poplar” or “popple,” but also use “tulip poplar,” which they sometimes shorten to “tulip.” He reports that “canoewood” is a popular name for the tree in Tennessee, but the tree was often known as “whitewood” in the past. He says some prefer the name “tulip tree” because it captures the look of the cuplike flowers in spring.

Hugh Johnson also weighs in on the various names, saying the name “tulip tree” “sounds like a Walt Disney production,” while “yellow poplar” is much less glamorous.

Yellow poplar belongs to the Magnoliaceae family and is referred to as the king of the magnolias, as it is the tallest hardwood tree in North America. Poplars may be identified by large leaves and flowers -- the so-called tulips -- which open in spring.

In Johnson’s “Hugh Johnson’s Encyclopedia of Trees,” he says it is hard to find a more “adaptable, less demanding tree, or one that grows faster.” Yellow poplars can grow as much as 50 feet in the span of 11 years, and, while they thrive in the southern Appalachians, they will also continue to grow in polluted areas and times of drought. Though a native of the United States and Canada, it has been successfully transplanted to other countries.

Versatile Uses

Among its many uses, yellow poplar is a favorite for sculpture, wood carving and turning. It is also used for component parts, interior trim, moulding and millwork, cabinetry, light construction, furniture, doors and paneling. It is often used for small items such as jewelry boxes, musical instruments and patternmaking and may be sliced into veneer to use for faces, crossbanding and backs of plywood.

As mentioned, yellow poplar is no relation to the Populus species, which is considered the true poplar, but it is related and very similar to Liriodendron Chinese, also know as the Chinese tulip tree.

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