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Multi-Personality Poplar Has Many Names, Many Uses
By Jo-Ann Kaiser
Liriodendron tulipifera of the Family Magnoliaceae.
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 poplarâs 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 âKnow Your Woods,â author Albert Constantine Jr. explains the origins for the tulip tree name. The root, âlirio,â comes from the Greek word âleiron,â for lily. âDendronâ means tree; âtulipâ refers to the scientific name for the tulip, or Tulipa; and âferumâ means to bear. âThus, we have the lily tree, which bears tulips, a reference to the lovely tulip-like flowers of this stately native tree,â he says.
Author Donald Culross Peattie tackled an explanation of the various names in his book, âA Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America.â âThe lumberman calls it âyellow poplarâ or just plain âpoplar,â 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.â
Culross Peattie says people in rural areas often prefer the term âpoplarâ or âpopple,â but also use âtulip poplar,â which they sometimes shorten to âtulip.â He reports that âcanoewoodâ is a popular name for the tree in Tennessee, but the tree was often known as âwhitewoodâ in the past. He says some prefer the name âtulip treeâ because it captures the look of the cuplike flowers in spring.
Hugh Johnson also weighs in on the various names, saying the name âtulip treeâ âsounds like a Walt Disney production,â while âyellow poplarâ 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 Johnsonâs âHugh Johnsonâs Encyclopedia of Trees,â he says it is hard to find a more âadaptable, less demanding tree, or one that grows faster.â 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.
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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