Go now. Drive along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. Seldom a better fall show than one experienced there. Red maples, sugar maples, hickories, ashes, and more deciduous trees contribute to the collage of fall colors. But in this park, the tulip trees have a unique story.
In a survey done in Shenandoah in 1940, there were no tulip tree groves to be found. By 1990, tulip trees covered sixteen percent of the park.
Tulip trees, or yellow poplars as they are sometimes called, grow in moist sites. They are tall straight trees that have whitish bark. In late spring they blossom with large orange and yellow tulip-shaped flowers. They are not tulips at all but actually part of the magnolia family. They are frequently found in uniform stands. Because of their fast growth rate they shade out many other plants. Morel mushrooms and puttyroot orchid are some of the few understory life forms found in tulip tree groves.
Tulip trees are a “gap” species. This means that they can sit in the understory of a forest and grow very slowly until they get more sunlight. When an opportunity that allows enough sunlight to reach the forest floor occurs, they take advantage of it and speed up their growth rate. Events that open up the forest floor to sunlight would include a tornado, storm, fire, or human activity like lumbering. Tulip trees are often found in old home sites, along forest edges or former orchards.
One tulip tree grove is found at mile marker 8 in the northern section of the park. In the fall, the filigreed canopy of bright yellow leaves attract an abundance of leaf watchers especially in the evening when the sunlight streams through and highlights the leaves like golden Christmas ornaments.
(by Ann and Rob Simpson, excerpted with modification, from Shenandoah NaturePod)
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