Kentucky Plant Life - Native Trees

Tulip Poplar - Kentucky's State Tree

Tulip poplar tree

Tulip Poplar Bloom

Tulip Poplar leaf

Photos courtesy of the U.S. Government
The American tulip tree, pictured above at left; its bloom and a leaf from the tree are shown above right.

Kentucky's Official State Tree is the American Tulip, or tulip poplar, as it is more commonly known in the Bluegrass State. Other names by which the tree is referred to are "tulip tree magnolia" and "whitewood". The tree is also called "canoewood" in some locales, because Native Americans once fashioned dugout canoes from the trunks of the tulip poplar.

The resemblance of its spring flowers to tulips led to the first part of the name of the tree, (although the blooms resemble more those of the magnolia). The tree is not an actual poplar, but acquired the second part of the name due to the way the distinctive four-lobed leaves flutter in the wind, much like trees of the poplar genus.

The wood of the tulip poplar is a top choice of organ makers. It is also used on the interior finish of houses and in various wooden wares.

The inner bark of the roots yields an alkaloid and heart stimulant used in medicine.

The flowers produce nectar used in gourmet honey.

This magnificient tree can reach a height of around 200 feet or 61 meters. However, on average the tulip poplar spans 70-100 feet (21-30 meters), tall at maturity. The finest specimens can be found in the Ohio River Valley.

Eastern Redbud

Eastern Redbud tree in bloom

The Eastern Redbud (pictured at left), is a brilliant spring bloomer along rural Kentucky roadsides and as a common understory tree in native forests. The ornamental tree is also deliberately planted in manmade landscapes. The small tree, (or large shrub), grows to 25-40 feet (8-12 meters) tall with wide spreading branches in the wild. The spring blooms appear in clusters on the bare stems and trunk of the tree before the leaves appear. The light to dark rose color of the flowers stand out against the stark early spring landscape of Kentucky. The summer leaves are heart-shaped with a defining point.

In some parts of Appalachia, the tree is known as the spicewood because green twigs from the branches were once used by early settlers to season wild game.

The flowers have been used to flavor salads or fried and eaten as a seperate dish.

The redbud is the state tree of Oklahoma.

Kentucky Coffeetree

The Kentucky Coffeetree preceded the tulip poplar as Kentucky's official state tree. This slow-growing species can reach 70 feet (21 meters) in height at maturity, with large compound leaves up to three feet (1 meter) long. The name of the tree is a result of Kentucky being the first place Europeans encountered the plant. And the seeds and pods, (which are poisonous in large quantities), were used as a substitute for real coffee. Kentucky Coffeetree timber is brittle and rarely used in woodworking.

Ohio Buckeye

Native to Kentucky, the Ohio Buckeye tree, (pictured at right), is a hardy specimen that rarely exceeds 30 feet (9 meters) at maturity. This tree has long been associated with the state of Ohio -- as the offiicial Ohio State Tree, and as the nickname of The Ohio State University sports teams from the early 1800's.

In the presidential election of 1840, William Henry Harrison, who would go on to become our ninth president, lived near Cincinnati on the Ohio River during the election. He used the buckeye tree and nuts, (shown at right below the tree), as campaign symbols, thus strengthening their link to the state of Ohio.

In present-day Kentucky, "Buckeye" is used to indicate any Ohioan.

Folk lore teaches that carrying one or more buckeyes in a pocket brings good luck to the bearer and can ward off rheumatism and other human physical ailments. Buckeyes are poisonous if eaten by humans, horses, or cattle. However, squirrels consume them eagerly.

Some folks refer to the fruits as "horse chestnuts", as the buckeye is part of that tree family.

Ohio buckeye tree

Fruits of the buckeye tree

Sassafras Tree

A member of the laurel family, the Sassafras, (or American Sassafras) tree grows 50-120 feet (15-35 meters) in the wild. This tree, fragrant from the roots to the tips of the three distinct leaf patterns is common throughout Kentucky.

The leaves are dried and ground to create a spice used in Cajun and Creole cooking, and as a thickening ingredient in soups. An essential oil from the root bark has been used for fragrance in perfumes and soaps; as a mosquito repellant; as a painkiller in dentistry and medicine; and as a spice in food. This oil, along with crushed leaves are used to make sassafras tea, a beverage.

A yellow die can be extracted from the wood of the sassafras and medicine for inflammation of the eyes, nose, and throat from the pith of the trunk. The shoots of the sassafras were once used to make root beer. However, due to food safety concerns, this practice has ended.

Shagbark Hickory

The Shagbark, (or Shadbark), Hickory Tree, a member of the walnut family, can reach a height around 100 feet (30 meters), at maturity. This stately tree, one of several hickory trees native to Kentucky, has been put to many uses by humans. Native Americans made "hickory milk" from the sweet edible nuts of the tree. The wood of the shagbark hickory has been used to make wheels for carriages and early automobiles.

In modern times, the hickory is used to create a flavoring charcoal to smoke ham, bacon, and other meats; to form tool handles and sporting equipment, including baseball bats; for furniture pieces; and as flooring material.

Folks in Kentucky still crack open the nuts and eat the fruit inside as a delicacy.

Other native species of trees in Kentucky include: Allegheny serviceberry; American beech; American holly; American hophornbeam; American hornbeam; American linden; Bald cypress; Bigleaf magnolia; Black cherry; Black locust; Black oak; Black walnut; Blackgum; Blue ash; Bur oak; Chestnut oak; Chinkapin oak; Cockspur hawthorn; Common witchhazel; Cucumbertree magnolia; Downy serviceberry; Eastern hemlock; Eastern white pine; Flowering dogwood; Fringetree; Green hawthorn; Green ash; Honeylocust; Mountain silverbell; Mountain stewartia; Northern catalpa; Northern red oak; Pagoda dogwood; Pawpaw; Pecan; Persimmon; Pignut; Pin oak; Red buckeye; Red maple; River birch; Scarlet oak; Shadblow serviceberry; Shellbark hickory; Shingle oak; Sourwood; Sugar hackberry; Sugar maple; Sweet birch; Sweetgum; Sycamore; Umbrella magnolia; Virginia pine; White ash; White oak; Willow oak; Yellow buckeye; Yellowwood.

The Horticulture Department of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture has pages on their web site showing how to identify leaves from their shapes. Their web site also offers pictures of various leaf shapes and you can see a sampling of leaves from common native Kentucky trees, including the Eastern redbud, the sassafras, and the yellow buckeye, a cousin to the Ohio buckeye.

Related Pages

Plants Puzzles and Games

For more information on a variety of plants:

KSNPC Rare Plants Database
Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission provides a searchable database where you can search by "common name", "scientific name", your "county name" or get a listing for statewide rare plants.

USDA Plants Database
You can search by scientific or common name, or do a state search and see a listing of plants in your state. There are over 30,000 images of plants, and a wealth of knowledge available on this site.

Plant Facts
A huge interactive data base with photos and videos produced and maintained by The Ohio State University. Their web site says they have: "merged several digital collections developed at Ohio State University to become an international knowledge bank and multimedia learning center"

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