Full Tulip Tree Timeline (How Long They Take To Grow)

Flower liriodendron tulipifera (tulip tree, american tulip tree, tuliptree, tulip poplar, whitewood, fiddle-tree, yellow poplar)

A tulip tree (sometimes called a yellow poplar or tulip poplar) can make a tall and beautiful addition to any garden. With proper care, this towering tree can live for centuries, producing beautiful blooms year after year. But just what is a tulip tree timeline?

A tulip tree’s life cycle has several stages. It starts from a seedling, growing each year until it transitions into a sapling and then a mature tree. Tulip trees produce blooms when they are 15 years old. After that, it will continue to grow until the end of its life cycle at around 200 years.

Interested in learning more about the life cycle of a tulip tree? Read on below for the scoop, as well as for our tips on how to best care for your tree and ensure it has a long and healthy life ahead of it!

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Tulip Trees Take Many Years to Grow and Reach Maturity

Tulip trees are considered full grown when they reach 15 years of age, although they’ll continue to grow throughout their lifespan. At that point, they’ll begin blooming and produce beautiful, lightly scented flowers in the late spring!

Be aware that if you purchase your tree from a nursery (rather than growing it from seed), it can be difficult to know exactly how old it may be. Most nurseries sell trees when they are one to three years old, but this isn’t always the case.

If your sapling has come from a garden center or nursery and you’re worried that your tree isn’t flowering at fifteen years, you may have gotten a younger tree than expected and simply need to wait another season or two for it to mature.

You may be able to use your tree’s height as a rough estimate of how old the tree is, although the exact growing rate can vary depending on the growing condition and the individual tree. Read on below for more info on a tulip tree’s growth rate.

A Tulip Tree Growth Rate Depends on Several Factors

Although it may seem slow initially, your future tulip will quickly grow from a seedling to a sapling to a large and blooming yellow poplar. But just how fast will it get there? 

On average, a tulip tree will grow about 2-3 feet per year, although it may grow a little faster or slower in some years. The exact growth rate can depend on the soil and growing conditions the tree experiences. 

For example, if a tree has full days of unrestricted sun, you’re more likely to see growth rates closer to 3 feet. But if the tree lacks nutrients, appropriate sunlight, or doesn’t receive the proper amount of water, you may find that your tulip tree’s growth is limited.

Because of the variation in growth rates, it can be hard to determine a tree’s age simply by looking at its height. For example, if a tree experienced good growing conditions and poor ones the next, the growth rate might have varied so much that the size doesn’t correspond to the age.

But one thing’s for certain: don’t be concerned about whether your tulip tree will thrive in an urban environment. One study from Georgetown University showed that yellow poplars (tulip poplar/Liriodendron tulipifera) can grow and populate in both forest and urban environments, making them a great option no matter where you live.

The Timeline Of A Tulip Tree

A tulip tree’s life cycle happens not in decades, but over centuries! A tulip tree typically lives 200-250 years, although it’s possible for them to live as long as 300 according to the USDA.

During that time, your tulip tree will continue to grow, eventually reaching about 120 feet tall. But before it reaches that height, it will pass through several distinct stages.

Read on below to learn more about each stage, as well as to hear our tips on how best to support your tree as it grows.

Day 1: How To Find The Right Tulip Sapling Or Seed

The first step to growing your new tree is to find it! 

When looking for a good tulip tree seedling or sapling, look for a tree with healthy green leaves with flat edges. In addition, the tree should look like it has recent growth, and there shouldn’t be any signs of damage or pests on the trunk, branches, or the underside of leaves.

If you do choose a sapling, check out our sapling planting instructions below (found in the Year 1 instructions). Otherwise, keep reading for our tips on starting your tree from seed.

Poplar seedlings in artificial light conditions, rooted cuttings in multi-cell growing trays.

Although finding the right sapling can be as easy as heading down to your local nursery, you may also want to start your tree from the very beginning.

If you’d like to grow it from seed (or if your local nursery does not have any tulip trees available), consider using a product like this Tulip Poplar Tree Seed Grow Kit.

You may want to consider starting your tulip tree seed indoors, especially if you plan on starting it in the fall or winter. Starting it indoors will give it the best growing conditions, allowing it to germinate and thrive before it’s exposed to harsh outdoor conditions.

You can start your seed in a small pot with some potting soil, placing it near a window or under a grow light like the GooingTop LED Grow Light. Ensure the soil remains moist but not soaking wet. Once the seed sprouts and becomes a small seedling, it’s time to transplant it outdoors!

The U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station states that your seed will need to stay in temperatures 32-50 degrees for a period of 70-90 days in order to germinate. But once it does, you can easily replant it outside and watch it thrive.

When To Plant Your Tulip Tree

Whether you are planting a tiny seedling or a larger sapling, you’ll want to transplant it into the ground in spring. The exact timeframe is going to be based on your region’s typical final frost date.

You don’t want to risk planting too early. If a late frost occurs, it may damage your tree before it has a chance to get big and tall.

That’s why it’s best to plant in the early spring, but after the danger of any frost has passed.

Speaking of frost, there’s good news for those worried about whether their tulip tree will survive next winter.

The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment state that the yellow poplar is winter hardy to Zone 4. This means that the tulip tree can withstand winter temperatures for most of the United States, but may not survive without help in the very coldest areas.

When planning your planting time, you also don’t want to wait too long to plant your tree.

Getting it in the ground early in the season will ensure that the tree has plenty of time to grow and establish its roots before the weather gets cold and the tree’s active growing time is done.

Where To Plant Your Tulip Tree

Plant your tulip tree seedling in a large, open space with slightly acidic soil, where it will receive as much sunlight as possible during the day (at least 6 hours). You may want to consider testing it before planting by using a kit like the Luster Leaf Rapitest for Soil pH.

You’ll want to avoid planting too close to buildings, underground piping, or other structures.

Tulip trees can have widespread root systems that go as deep as three feet, and though your tulip tree is small now, eventually, it may grow as high as 120 feet tall with a root system three times that size!

Flower of tulip tree (liriodendron tulipifera) or tulip poplar, closeup and top view

Day 1 To 365: Becoming A Tulip Sapling

If you do choose to grow your tree from a seed, during the first year, you’ll see it grow taller, with plenty of additional branches and leaves. In fact, it may grow as much as three feet, leaving you with a beautiful growing sapling.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources defines a seedling as a young tree that is less than one inch in diameter and less than four and a half feet tall, while a sapling is less than five inches in diameter and less than four and a half feet tall.

This means that in the first year, your tree may quickly grow from seed to seedling to sapling and be well on its way to maturing and producing flowers.

Years 1 To 3: Encouraging Growth And Protecting From Pests

You’ll quickly find that your sapling has become a full tree in the second to third year of growth! 

During this time period, you should be focused on encouraging healthy growth by trimming dead branches in the fall and winter, as well as watching for signs of pests (like the appearance of chewed leaves or branches that fail to grow).

It’s also important to keep an eye out for excessive sap production, which may actually be a sign of aphid or tulip tree scale infestation. If you do think your tree has been infested, one study by the Annals of the Entomological Society of America shows that freezing conditions, ice, or other temperature extremes will often take care of the scale, so the arrival of winter may take care of your problem.

Although you have several years to go before your tulip tree will bloom, your tree will still make a beautiful supplement to your yard and garden.

Years 3 To 15: Waiting On Your Tulip First Blooms

After your seedling (or sapling) has grown, you may become impatient waiting on the first gorgeous spring blooms to appear. 

During this time, you may consider planting additional vegetation around the base of your tree or even planting another few tulip trees to create a tulip tree grove.

Now is also an excellent time to start shaping your tree, pruning back errant branches, and trimming it into the desired shape.

You’ll also want to take care of any diseased or damaged branches or limbs by trimming at the end of summer, in the fall, or in winter so as to not threaten your new trees next growing season.

Years 15 And On: Preparing For The Long Haul

After your tree has fully matured, your primary responsibility is to keep it pruned and healthy.

You can do this by periodically checking the soil to ensure the proper pH and nutrients are being maintained near your tulip tree, as well as watering it during any time of drought.

Read on to hear more of our favorite tips on how to keep your tulip tree happy and healthy.

Here’s The Best Time To Prune Your Tulip Tree

The best time to prune your tulip tree is not during the growing season in spring or summer but after leaves drop in fall or winter.

This is because pruning can be stressful to your tree, so doing any major trimming in the winter lets the tree recover while it’s not trying to grow or fight off pests and disease.

If needed, you can do some small and minor pruning in late summer as well, without risking the health of the tree. But if possible, it’s best to save the big pruning projects for the off-season.

And, if you need to cut the tree back wholly (due to damage, pests, or other reasons), you’ll want to do it during the winter. The good news is that as long as the root system is intact, your tree will have a chance of growing back.

If you do end up cutting the tree down, don’t despair! The wood of tulip trees can be used for a variety of purposes, even to create timber for flooring or framing. 

In fact, tulip trees are also referred to as “canoe wood” because Native American tribes often used the yellow poplar to create dugout canoes.

If you’re curious to learn more facts about tulip trees, you can read about why tulip trees are considered hardwoods and not softwoods here.

Here’s How to Best Take Care of Your Tulip Tree

The best news of all is that a tulip tree is a low-maintenance tree, meaning that once your tree has grown, it usually requires little in the way of fertilizing or watering.

Liriodendron tulipifera plant

Give It Full Sun!

Tulip trees do best in an area with full sun (at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day, although more is better) and with slightly acidic soil. Be sure not to build any structures or plant any other trees that may cast shade across your tulip tree.

Give Your Tulip Tree Lots Of Space

You’ll also want to avoid building anything nearby, as a tulip tree’s root system can be very widespread (several times the horizontal spread of the branches). In order to allow your tree to continue to grow, it’s best to give them plenty of space to spread out.

Keep An Eye On The Soil Ph Under The Tree

Tulip trees don’t require specific fertilizer but keep an eye out on the soil pH in the area surrounding the tree. Spotting signs of nutrition deficiency early and correcting any imbalances can help your tree live the best life possible.

Things like leaves curling or wilting, inconsistent coloring across leaves, or a scorched appearance can sometimes mean your tulip tree lacks certain minerals.

If you do notice some signs of a deficiency, you may want to try a product like Jobe’s Fertilizer Spikes. These pre-measured spikes can be placed in the ground surrounding the tree, providing nutrients and food for your yellow poplar all season long.

Maintain Deep Watering

As far as watering goes, you want to tread carefully between underwatering and overwatering.

If you under-water your tree, you risk affecting the growth and overall health rate of the tree. If you overwater, you expose the tree to a higher risk of disease and pests, which is a particular concern for tulip trees that are at risk for aphid and scale infestation.

A good rule of thumb is to check the top few inches of the soil underneath the tulip tree. If they feel really dry to the touch, the tree may need a good watering. 

You want the soil to be slightly moist but not soaked after you are done.

Be especially careful about two things in particular: letting your tulip tree become too dry or experiencing too much shade. One study by the International Society of Arboriculture showed that the tulip tree is often more intolerant of shade and drought than other similar species of tree.

That’s A Wrap!

Tulip trees grow from a seedling, maturing and producing their first blooms at fifteen years of age. But that’s just the beginning of their journey, as they continue to grow several feet a year until the natural end of their life cycle at 200 years old.

When properly maintained and provided for, tulip trees will add scent and beautiful flowers to your yard for generations to come.

References

Burns, Denver P., and David E. Donley. “Biology of the tuliptree scale, Toumeyella liriodendri (Homoptera: Coccidae).” Annals of the Entomological Society of America 63.1 (1970): 228-235.

Carter, David R., Robert T. Fahey, and Margaret B. Bialecki. “Tree growth and resilience to extreme drought across an urban land-use gradient.” (2013).

Gutierrez Ozuna, Ricardo. Population genetic differentiation, mating system, and effective population size of the tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera L.) in the Mid-Atlantic United States. Diss. Georgetown University, 2017.

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