Tulip trees and sweet gum trees are attractive, native species that dominate much of the Southern Coastal Plain of extreme southeastern Pennsylvania to Georgia.

These deciduous trees are also commonly planted on lawns in southeastern Pennsylvania because of their beauties at different times of year and the shade they cast. And both these lovely trees feed different species of wildlife.

Common in southeastern Pennsylvania, tulip trees grow tall, straight trunks and uniquely shaped leaves that resemble headless birds in flight.

Each leaf has two “wings”; a broad, forked “tail”; and a long, thin “neck,” the petiole. Those leaves turn yellow in autumn when they die and their green chlorophyll fades. Tulip tree foliage helps brighten many woods in fall.

Tulip trees’ flowers bloom in the middle of May, and each lovely, 2-inch blossom is shaped like a tulip. Each flower petal is light green with an orange base. Those bases together create a ring of orange on the bottom of each blossom. A variety of flies, bees, and other insects sip nectar from tulip tree blooms, pollinating them in the process.    

The many resulting dull-brown seeds of each fertilized flower grow on a pointed, 2-inch spike. Each seed has a thick part that houses the embryo and a flat, thin blade that spins the seed away on the wind and across the countryside.

Mice, squirrels, and chipmunks ingest many tulip tree seeds lying on the ground. And squirrels consume many others still attached to their spikes in the trees.

Each unique sweet gum leaf has five points that make it look like a star. In October, those leaves become a striking red, yellow, or maroon, all those bright colors on each beautiful tree.

Each sweet gum tree produces many round, dull-brown seed balls that are about an inch across. Each ball is covered with holes where the tiny, dark seeds sprinkle out when mature and soft bristles that protect those cavities. Many of the seeds that fall out of the balls blow away on the wind.

But many other seeds are eaten by a variety of attractive finches and sparrows during winter. Those small birds pick the seeds out of the balls, whether they are attached to their twig moorings or lying on the ground. And those birds also pick up seeds that blew around in the wind and finally settled on the ground.

Either way, those birds add their beauties to that of sweet gums and the habitats those trees grow in.        

Sweet gums are getting better established in southeastern Pennsylvania. Seeds from planted sweet gums sprout and grow in abandoned fields and along rural roadsides.

Tulip trees and sweet gums are beautiful trees that are commonly planted on southeastern Pennsylvania lawns because of their beauties and the shade they provide. And these trees feed certain kinds of wildlife, both in woods and on lawns. 


Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.

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