Tulip Tree

by Green Deane

in Spice/Seasoning, Sugar/Sweetener, Trees/Shrubs

The Tulip Tree Sweet Blossom

Not every edible plant has to be a nutritional powerhouse. Some are “edible” by the barest of means. A good example is the Tulip Tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, said leer-ee-oh-DEN-drawn too-lih-PIFF-er-uh.

Note unusual tip of leaf

What if you read that a native plant was “used to make honey.”  What would you think? Probably that the plant was cultivated for bees to make honey. Unfortunately that is not what my reference says. It say the Native Americans made honey from the Tulip Tree. That’s rather doubtful. First people don’t make honey, bees do. And more specifically honey bees are not native to North America. They came with Europeans. It doubtful until perhaps late in the game did Natives cultivate the Tulip Tree for honey. They didn’t have the bees.  However, when the bees got here the flying nectar mavens did discover Tulip Trees.

Some references say Tulip Tree roots were used as a flavoring to take the bitterness out of Spruce Beer. I’ve had Spruce Beer and it does need something to make it more palatable. But one expert on Native Americans lists under “sauces and garnishes” that Tulip Trees were used to make honey. As mentioned above that’s not probable but here’s a possible answer thaat fits nicely with our foraging interests.

The flower quickly turns to non-edible seeds.

For just a short time while the tree is blossoming there is a small amount of very sweet nectar in each blossom. It is heavy and honey-flavored. You can drink it directly from the blossom. The expert was relying on old reports that probably didn’t describe how the natives used the tree. They weren’t collecting honey, they were collecting nectar. The tree was also called the Sap Poplar, perhaps because its sap is consumable. I don’t know and have not found any reference to said but it wouldn’t surprise me. As a source of nectar the tree also attracts hummingbirds, squirrels and is a host plant for tiger and spicebush swallowtail butterflies.

The genus name is bastardized Greek via Dead Latin. Liriodendron. Lirio is a Greek derivative for Lily, dendron Greek for tree, Lily Tree.  Tulip is the English version of a Turkish word Tuliband. That is bastardized Persian for dulband which means turban. “Ifera” is Latin and means producing. Liriodendron tulipifera thusis “Lily Tree Producing Tulips.” The tree is also called Yellow Poplar, Tulip Poplar, White Poplar, and Whitewood.

Related to the Magnolias, the Tulip Tree can be found in eastern North America plus Texas. To see a good video on the Tulip Tree by my foraging colleague Blanche Derby, click here.

Green Deane’s Itemized Plant Profile: Tulip Tree

IDENTIFICATION: Liriodendron tulipifera, 100-foot tree, sometimes to 150 feet. Leaves alternating, simple, palmately veined, orbicular (circular and flat) 4-lobes, no teeth, 4 to 8 inches long, notched to flat top. Somewhat shaped like a tulip, light green to green. Blossom, monoecious; perfect, showy, resembling a large tulip, but high in the tree, 2.5 inches long, with yellow-green petals and an orange corolla.  Fruit is cone-like with many samaras (2 inches long) falling off at maturity; each samara is 1-winged, 1.5 inches long, and curved upwards resembling the front keel of a boat, maturing August to October and falling through late fall and winter. The base whorls of samaras persist into following spring and resemble wooden flowers high in the tree.

TIME OF YEAR: Flowers appear in late spring to early summer.

ENVIRONMENT: Grows in a wide variety of soil. The effects of temperature and moisture extremes are mitigated some by the lay of the land. At the northern end of its range, yellow-poplar is usually found in valleys and stream bottoms at elevations below 1,000 feet. In southern Appalachia, it can grow on a variety of sites, including stream bottoms, coves, and moist slopes up to an elevation of about 4,500 feet. Toward the southern limit of the range, where high temperatures and soil moisture probably become limiting, the species is usually confined to moist, well-drained, stream bottoms. Optimum development occurs where rainfall is well-distributed over a long growing season.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: The blossom can be tipped and the nectar sipped out.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

tony June 12, 2016 at 06:18

would it be possible to put these flowers thru a ringer to get the good stuff??


native1 August 8, 2015 at 12:02

Actually the used it a sap (a sweetener or treat) an alternative to honey. (But not honey) but SAP


Barry K Jordan November 20, 2013 at 17:00

I have many poplars in my yard, as well as a few different species of maple. One of which is a sugar maple. Oh, I will be tapping those babies (maples) to make my own maple syrup. On the flower of the poplar, is there any good way of collecting the nectar, that is, will it pour out? How can I store it? Or am I being greedy? Perhaps I can just enjoy the occasional sip of nectar here and there. May be good in my dandelion coffee. Who knows if tree sugars are better for you than cane or beet sugar? Or are they much the same?


Green Deane November 20, 2013 at 17:14

There can be enough nectar to pour out of the tulip tree blossom. As for tree sugar… Maple syrup is 60% sucrose and 40% fructose, honey is 30% glucose, 40 fructose, 1% sucrose, agava is 70% plus fructose… As fructose is the bad stuff tree sugar would seem to be a little better than table sugar and a whole lot better than agave sugar.


Barry K Jordan November 20, 2013 at 17:53

I copied and pasted that into my notes. Great info to have. I must look up and see what “agave” is. I will make sure I’m ready when it’s time to tap my maples. As for the dandelion coffee, I’m going to reserve a place in my garden to grow some dandelions. Maybe with better soil I can get a bigger size root from them. And maybe throw some of those young dandy leaves in my food. They say they are a “super food”. I’ve only gotten into wild edibles in the last year, and while I’m still a bit new to it all, it has captured my interest like nothing else in a long time. Perhaps I’ve found my calling….lol…we’ll see.


Mike May 2, 2012 at 05:46

i know that these kind of tree’s have some hard wood and beach nut tree’s too and cedars and others do but not silver maples cause the wind brakes them to easy


Mike May 2, 2012 at 05:36

there’s still “red-wasps” if all the bees die the wasps do fly from one flower to another I’ve seen them do it and they like the water thats on the plants and the wasps like the holly tree flowers and they like lily flowers & more.

well how would they know that its nectar


Bobbi April 30, 2012 at 20:05

Can you eat the tulip tree flower?


Green Deane May 1, 2012 at 06:42

No. I would have said so if it were edible.


G diddy June 28, 2013 at 16:56

You can eat the blossoms!!
They are very tasty


Green Deane July 18, 2013 at 02:48

Have you eaten them yourself? And if so, how?


Jamie March 21, 2012 at 18:11

The basic process of honey making is evaporating nectar. There is some enzyme action, but I’m not certain that it is absolutely necessary. I think it would be possible to boil the nectar down into a syrupy honey.


Jeannie March 12, 2012 at 00:28

Ah, yes, I should have felt silly! You did say “honey” bees. Thank you for clearing that up. 🙂


Jeannie February 3, 2012 at 00:32

I’m not worried about looking silly, I just wonder… if there were no bees, how did plants get pollinated?


Green Deane February 3, 2012 at 23:41

There were no Honey Bees. There were solitary Bumble Bees.


Mike May 2, 2012 at 05:41

i see less and less Bumble Bees each year


Charles Reid August 24, 2012 at 12:38

Just for the record, there are many insects and many types of native bees that pollinate flowers. Honeybees and bumble bees are just the better known. Carpenter bees, those giant hulking bees that dig into your fence posts are a native pollinator that is on the uptick. There also wasps, hornets, flies, beetles, and many other insects that pollinate flowers.


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