Jan 13, 2010
A tuliptree seed cone fell onto a freezing pond during recent snowy winds, and it wound up trapped in ice.
There are several species of magnolia native to the Southern Appalachians. Fraser magnolia is most abundant in the Smokies, and umbrella and cucumber magnolias can be found. In the Cumberlands, bigleaf magnolia joins the mix. Most magnolias planted around homes and buildings are exotic, even Southern magnolia, whose wild range does not reach the Tennessee Valley.
The most familiar magnolia is the the tuliptree, but since it is often called tulip poplar, you may not realize it is closely related to magnolias. Poplars are distant relatives, and tuliptree shares many similarities with magnolias: upright, simple, large flowers; large leaf buds; straight, tall growth form; whorled leaf growth. Tuliptrees only grow in Appalachian and in Chinese forests, one species in each region and the only two members of their genus of the magnolia family.
Seed morphology is where tuliptrees differ from other magnolias. Magnolias grow upright, oblong cones with bright seeds inside. Tulip seeds are wings with a fertile foot.
Early flowering plants had blossoms and seeds similar to magnolias. Oaks, maples and most extant tree groups show up only in more recent fossil strata. As the Appalachians transitioned from coniferous forests to hardwood forests, magnolia-like ancestors and other ancient lineages gave rise to modern trees. The tuliptree is a magnolia specialized for wind dispersal of seeds.
Poplars branch from the tree's evolutionary tree far from magnolias, over near willows and aspens, none of which grow in any abundance in eastern forests. Liriodendron tulipifera is a hint into the deep history of Appalachia. I prefer to call it tuliptree.
Inside those flower petals grows a small, green cone that gets longer through summer, eventually dries and spills dozens of winged seeds onto the wind, a modern version of an ancient flowering plant perpetuating.