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Rediscovering the yellow poplar.

It's not easy to choose a favorite tree, but if I had to, I'd pick the yellow poplar.

My first acquaintance with one of these trees, also know as tulip poplar or tuliptree, was at my grandparents' farm next door to my childhood home. In those days the farm's silver maples got more of my attention, what with their 'helicopter" samaras to set sailing on the wind and wide branches where a six year-old could hide from farm chore But I was fascinated by the yellow poplar's tulip-shaped leaves, the firs to turn color-a brilliant yellow-in fall. That was the only time of year I got to see the leaves up close, because the tree, typical of its kind, ha no branches close to the ground. As a forestry student in college, I was introduced to yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) as it grows in the forest. The forest trees were even taller, straighter, and more majestic than the tuliptree was back home. Although the leaves were usually too high in the canopy to clue me in on the tree's identity, its arrow straight trunk and distinctive form gave the yellow poplar away every time my dendrology professor would point to one and declare it a -quiz tree." I still looked up to this magnificent species.

Wherever it grows throughout most of the eastern United States (see range map), yellow poplar is a favorite among homeowners and foresters. Homeowners like the way it grows fast into an excellent shade tree. When foresters and loggers look at a yellow poplar, they see several 16-foot lengths of straight-grain, knot-free wood that takes paint well and nails without splitting.

"It's the only hardwood tree that a logger can cut, watch regenerate, and cut again, twice in a lifetime,' says Maryland logger David G. Smith, proprietor of a Davidsonville sawmill that bears his name.

You'd think that builders and woodworkers would see what the foresters and loggers recognize in yellow poplar. The builders of yesteryear did, but the tuliptree has lost its popularity over the last century, for some very good reasons. I'll explore those reasons and argue that it's high time to review the logic that drove builders away from yellow-poplar lumber. At least two states, Indiana and Maryland, have pilot programs to demonstrate the good sense of returning to yellow poplar for construction purposes. But first, some yellowpoplar history.

Production of yellow-poplar lumber reached an all-time high in 1899, when the wood was a favorite for the framing and siding of houses. Many of the historic houses and farm buildings that dot the landscape in eastern states testify to yellow poplar's strength and durability.

Production hit bottom in 1932, peaked again in 1950, and leveled off after that. Since 1960, production of yellow-poplar lumber has accounted for only 9 percent of total hardwood production.

How could such a popular tree-prized for its availability, quality, and good working properties-fall by the wayside so quickly? The biggest factor was competition with softwood lumber-Douglas-fir and cedar from the West, southern pines from the Southeast. (Hardwoods, also called angiosperms or broad-leaved trees, have leaves rather than needles, which are characteristic of the softwoods, also called conifers or gymnosperms.)

The biggest advantage that softwoods have over hardwoods is that they rarely warp or become distorted with changes in moisture. Hardwoods can warp to such an extent that the wood is rendered below grade for many uses.

Using conventional techniques of sawing and drying, only 34 to 40 percent of yellow poplar can be expected to meet the requirements for studgrade lumber. To reduce warping, new techniques of sawing and drying yellow poplar were researched more than a decade ago at the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin-with outstanding results. Using the new methods, more than 99 percent of all yellow-poplar studs meet the grade.

Once builders became accustomed to working with conifers, they also discovered that these woods are easier to nail, season, and paint than most hardwoods are. Portable pneumatic nailers, improved seasoning techniques, and new finishes eventually canceled these differences, but not before the trend toward using softwoods for construction was firmly in place. Even where hardwoods are more plentiful, they are often overlooked for construction purposes.

Like most softwoods, yellow poplar has a high strength-to-weight ratiohigher than other hardwoods, even higher than some softwoods. The wood's strength in spite of its light weight is what makes yellow poplar so popular for "package veneer'-baskets and crates to hold fruits and vegetables. This fact was unknown to me when, as a teenager, I spent more than one hot summer afternoon sorting tomatoes while sitting on a basket in the shade of the farmyard tuliptree. Maybe that background is what made this bit of trivia stick, why years later what I remember most clearly about yellow poplar from my wood-science class is that it makes a great basket. A more likely reason is this: Yellow-poplar lumber has been so completely outmoded that the wood's structural uses are rarely mentioned in forestry classrooms today.

The tree's name hasn't helped matters. When you think of poplar, you probably think of firewood-those fast-growing hybrid poplars that folks grow just to throw on the fire. In fact, yellow poplar is not a true poplar; it belongs to the magnolia family, which is far removed from the poplars. In writing this article, I ran across many people who work with wood but don't realize the distinction between yellow poplar and poplar.

It is not certain how the tree came to be misnamed, but like true poplars, it is fast growing. Its wood is relatively soft, also a characteristic of poplar wood. And the tree's large, notched leaves that quiver on the slightest breeze probably reminded the early settlers of poplars in their homelands. End result: They attached a familiar name to an unfamiliar tree.

Whatever the reason, the misnomer is here to stay, and it results in further misunderstandings about the tree and its wood. Despite the wood's softness compared to other hardwoods, yellow poplar is strong enough for construction uses for the same reasons that softwoods-pine, cedar, and Douglas fir-are popular for construction.

Its relative softness means that yellow poplar is one of the easiest of all hardwoods to work-with hand tools as well as by machine. It takes paint well and is more easily nailed than other hardwoods are.

Timber from old-growth trees is somewhat lightweight, but the second-growth timber, besides being more prevalent these days, is heavier, harder, and stronger. The reason is that the second-growth contains a higher percentage of sapwood than heartwood, and sapwood is heavier. As the trees age, the heartwood becomes brittle and lighter, and old trees tend to have more heartwood.

These properties should make yellow poplar the wood of choice for a whole host of items: paneling, siding, decking, molding, cabinets, furniture, shelving, log homes, farm buildings, posts and poles, medium-density fiberboard, oriented strandboard, and landscape timbers, to name some.

The growth properties of yellow poplar add to its value as a construction wood. The tree grows tall and straight, fast and abundantly throughout its range. It grows most extensively and reaches its largest size in the deep, rich soil of the lower Ohio Valley and in sheltered coves and valleys of the southern Appalachian Mountains.

A good-size tuliptree is 150 feet tall and two to three feet in diameter. The trunk of a forest-grown specimen is often straight as an arrow and clear of lateral branches for 80 to 100 feet up the bole. This means straight-grain, knot-free wood that is easily milled.

Tuliptrees reach maturity in about 200 years. Very old trees can live up to 100 years beyond that. The AFA-recognized Famous and Historic yellow poplar planted by the father of our country some 200 years ago still greets visitors to the Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. The tuliptree of my youth stands tall today while windstorms have taken their toll on the silver maples I once preferred.

Yellow poplar has not shown the same strength and endurance in the marketplace over the past century, but there are signs of a resurgence. Part of the reason is supply. Within much of its range, the tuliptree is far more prevalent than many construction-grade softwoods. The U.S. Forest Service reports that for the first time in this century, the majority of the nation's timber volume is east of the Rocky Mountains' and most of that volume is in hardwoods. And of all the hardwoods, yellow poplar best mimics the softwoods used for construction.

Some state and federal projects are helping educate builders to these facts. The Forest Service recently tested six hardwoods for their performance as siding on houses. Yellow poplar performed best, with red oak running a close second. In addition, the Forest Service concluded that yellow-poplar siding holds a finish better than Douglas-fir and does not develop raised grain as Douglas-fir sometimes does.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Forest, Park, and Wildlife Service has teamed up with the Forest Service and Maryland's Rural Resource Conservation and Development Board to demonstrate that local mills are ready and willing to saw yellow poplar, retail stores are eager to market it, and builders can erect beautiful structures of its lumber. A house constructed recently in the DC metropolitan area stands as proof (see The House That Maryland Built' on page 72).

In Indiana, foresters in several Resource Conservation and Development Areas believe the unrealized value of this tree is so great that they have formed the Indiana Tuliptree Initiative. The project includes a plan to research and promote yellow poplar for a wide spectrum of uses.

Indiana's project was deemed important beyond state boundaries-so important that the U.S. Forest Service agreed to partially fund a three-year initiative beginning in 1988. One of the results is a video directed toward builders and woodworkers. The video, narrated by AFA's executive vice president Neil Sampson, will be shown at construction and home trade shows. It is also available for sale from AFA (P.O. Box 2000, Washington, DC 20013).

Such initiatives will help yellow poplar regain its popularity and usefulness. One day soon this tree will hold as majestic a spot in the marketplace as it does in the forest. AF
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Title Annotation:includes related article; advantages of yellow poplar as construction material
Author:Boerner-Ein, Deborah A.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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Next Article:Problems & progress in tropical forests.

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