Tulip Poplar, the Canoe Tree
The strange, brilliant orange and green flowers of the Tulip Poplar tree are in full bloom now in the warmer parts of the mountains. Some have already descended onto the ground, waiting to be found by curious children and remarked upon, “What is this strange flower?”
Tulip poplar is one of our native trees, but due to its prevalence, it is sometimes unclear how amazing and unique this straight, graceful tree is. If you have never stripped the fresh bark off a newly cut tree and folded into a berry basket or twisted the retted, inner bark into a soft cordage, or lickd the fallen flowers for their sugary nectar, I encourage you to meet and hold this wonderful tree and all of its amazing parts in your own two hands.
This tree isn’t just a balm for the eyes with its lime-green leaves and gold irridencenes, it has a long history of use as a tonic and fever tree in the Southern Appalachians. Botanist Johann David Schoepff in 1787 remarked on the usefulness of the tulip poplar during his travels in North America. He declared the tincture of the bark and root useful as a febrifuge and rheumatic remedy; the seed as aperient; the fresh leaves to make an ointment for various inflammations and gangrene. He most likely learned these uses from the settlers and they from American Indians. (1)
Cherokee people used this tree for many purposes from canoe building, which led to one of its many names of canoe wood, bow drill fire, and cordage. Medicinally it was used for periodic fevers, diarrhea, pinworms, as a digestive aid, and for rheumatic pain. The decoction is used as a bath for fractures, sprains, and hemorrhoids. There is also an interesting bit of lore that comes from David Winston where in if a snake bite is received in a dream, the tulip poplar must be applied, for if the bite is left untreated, traumatic arthritis could develop in the area bitten. (3)
One of the most interesting questions I ask myself when studying Appalachian folk medicine and magic, is does the inherent nature of the landscape affect the ways in which these traditions are birthed? Does the damp heat of the summer in the Southern Appalachians give rise to the folk healing traditions of these mountains? The prevalence of fever remedies in the Appalachian medicinal herb lexicon makes me want to say yes. Today we don’t have to fight the miasmas of Summer any longer due to the widespread use of insecticides and large public pushes to reduce mosquito breeding grounds, but Summer was once a time of different dangers for people attempting to remain healthy thru exposure to malaria.
During the Revolutionary war, Governor Clayton stated that "during the late (Revolution) war Peruvian bark was very scarce and expensive, and as I was at that time engaged in considerable practice, I made a mixture of the barks of Liriodendron (tulip poplar), Cornus florida (dogwood) and Quercus alba (white oak) in nearly equal quantities.”(2) The Peruvian bark they are referring to is the infamous Quinine, which is native to South America. The stately tulip tree and its longtime companion the Dogwood (cornus spp.) were both often used in the teas, decoctions and tinctures meant to ease the raging fevers of Summer in the South.Tulip poplar inner bark and root bark came to feature prominently in fever formulas and bitter tonics for rheumatism and general inflammations.
Though this tree was written about here and there in reference to its benefits in the fights against fevers, it was mostly thought of as a country folks remedy. Maybe that is why I like it so much… It’s said tulip poplar root bark was mixed with dogwood bark in brandy for use in fevers when mixed with water. The Vegetable Materia Medica of the United States by William Barton published in 1825 listed many uses for this tree. The bark is considered stimulant, causing sweating, while being astringent and bitter. The root bark is considered tonic. He recommends mixing it with dogwood and winterberry for fever (they called them intermittents in old medical books due to the back and forth nature of malarial fevers), and black alder. The root powder was also used in late stage dysentery and gout.
A great cure for hysteria is also apparently laudanum and poplar bark, so much so that Barton says there is in fact no better remedy. He mentions it’s use as a vermifuge as well, which is how the Catawba people used this tree (4). It was used as a vermifuge in African folk medicine as well, but it was given as root decoction to horses for worms. He describes the older uses of the wood specifically as well. Tulip tree wood was used to make large mill wheels because it was said it could be tolerant of wet conditions. It was also used on the lathe often to make utensils. This easily carvable wood was used for butter stamps and canoes as well as aforementioned. A liquor was even made in Paris of the bark and roots with sugar. (5) I’m curious if anyone has ever tried this, and if not, perhaps we can make a syrup of it.
In Appalachian folk medicine tulip poplar bark was used largely for inflammation, rheumatism, and according to Alabama folk herbalist Tommie Bass, the root bark was a good tonic that would make you sweat and help stimulate appetite. I have seen the flower tincture used for the same purposes, namely arthritic pain. My sweet friend Abby Artemisia uses it for anxiety and insomnia as a tea or tincture of the twigs. I’ve tried a mild tea of the young twigs and have to say it has a lovely taste. Phyllis Light of Alabama also recommends it for circulation, varicose veins and heart issues.
When you get closer to tulip poplar and see its brilliant orange and green flowers and look at its new leaves, you’ll notice a golden sheen on the lime-green tender leaves. This energetic association with warming and diaphoretic action leads me to associate this tree with the Sun itself bearing such brilliant colors and almost spicy flavor. Conversely, the lunar influence over it is also evident.
One of the most amazing things about this tree is the way in which it’s bark can be used for shelters, lodges, shingles and baskets. It is said the full moon in June is the best time to slip the bark on this tree and I can’t say that it isn’t true. When peeling logs for a log cabin on Natalie Bogwalker’s land down the lane from me, we peeled pine and poplar on a few different lunar phases and noted, that indeed, the full moon in June seemed to be the best for us. Those lunar times where certain tasks are completed with ease always make me feel deeply connected to the planet that rules my Cancerian experience.
This indigenous basket making tradition was observed by settlers and adopted into the Appalachian folk lexicon of naturally made, useful items. I first saw a tulip poplar basket on the back of Doug Elliot, my friend and an amazing naturalist and story teller. He has a lot to say about tulip tree and its magic. These baskets are made by artisans all over Appalachia and other areas of American where the tulip poplar grows today.
There is so much more to be said about this amazingly native tree. What magic have you found in the center of a tulip poplar flower? In the feel of the wet bark popping off the tree on a full moon in June? The sharp taste of the new buds in Spring?
(1)Materia Medica Americana, David Johann Schoepf, Erlangae, 1787, p. 90.
(2) Drugs and Medicines of North America, 1884-1887, was written by John Uri Lloyd and Curtis G. Lloyd.
(3) Nvwoti; Cherokee Medicine and Ethnobotany by David Winston, A.H.G.
(4) Florida Ethnobotany. Daniel F. Austin.
(5) Vegetable Materia Medica of the United States; Or Medical Botany ..., Volume 1
By William Paul Crillon Barton (1825)
To support me in my research and work, please consider donating. Every dollar helps!