by Chris Martine
The first house I lived in with my parents in Montvale, NJ, had a big old tuliptree in the backyard – and even sitting here right now I can picture the orange and yellow petals fluttering down onto the grass while I played beneath it in the late 1970s. As I type I can smell the distinctive aroma of those petals as I crushed them up in my little hands for a sniff, a scent I would later link to the biochemical activity present in many of the plants of the taxonomic Order Magnoliales. I didn’t know anything about that, then, of course.
All I knew was that I loved that big tuliptree.
A deep and abiding appreciation for Liriodendron tulipifera has stuck with me ever since, only becoming more intense over the years as I learned its Latin name (and family) in my undergrad Dendrology course at Rutgers or when I found that it and its sister species (L. chinense) are one of the best examples of the eastern Asia/eastern North America disjunction phenomenon. Asking a botanist to name their favorite tree is usually problematic; but I am pretty certain about mine.
So when John Kuser, the prof who taught said Dendrology course, offhandedly offered me a tuliptree seedling that had volunteered in a flowerpot on his back patio… well, I couldn’t say no. The house that my family moved to when I was in second grade, in Park Ridge, NJ, did not have a tuliptree. I knew where to put this one.
So, in that year of 1995, my girlfriend Rachel (now my wife, yay for me!) and I planted that seedling in my parents’ yard – in the same section of yard where we had also planted a dawn redwood leftover from Doc Kuser’s breeding program at Rutgers. For a year or two, those two trees grew like gangbusters; so much so that we decided to move the tuliptree to a new spot where it could have more space. By then we had also given the tree a name, Cotati, after the northern Calfornia town where we had once spent a great day together.
Cotati’s new location was within the footprint of an old chicken pen and, man, did Cotati like that spot. It grew like never before and hasn’t stopped growing since. You should see it.
My parents’ yard is full of trees I planted around that same time: the slippery elm I moved from a garden to the edge of the driveway; the red oak I planted as an acorn; the ginkgo I found as a volunteer in a thicket of campus weeds. All of these were baby trees that I planted so that “someday” they’d be big trees.
But here’s the thing: someday is now. 25 years later, our 15-year-old son is climbing these same trees, my dad is wondering where I am when he’s raking the leaves of those trees, and my mother is planting shade-tolerant perennials underneath them. There are bird’s nests and squirrel perches and caterpillars.
And, yes, there are also loads of tuliptree flowers to be sniffed.
Chris Martine is the David Burpee Professor in Plant Genetics & Research at Bucknell University. Chris is also the creator and host of Plants are Cool Too. Find Chris on Twitter at @MartineBotany. We posted Plant Love Stories from Chris' Field Botany Students here.and here here here and here).