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Tulip, Magnolia or Something Else?

National champion tuliptree yellow-poplar during the winter

National champion tuliptree yellow-poplar during the winter. Credit: Sheri Shannon/American Forests

The national champion tuliptree yellow-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) in Chesapeake, Va., stands at 115 feet in height, with a trunk that is almost 30 feet around. All of which makes it pretty impressive, but maybe even more impressive is that its lineage could possibly date back to the Early Cretaceous period, meaning its ancestors shaded the dinosaurs!

In a new study published in American Journal of Botany, co-authors Dr. David Dilcher and Dr. Mikhail S. Romanov posit that the modern-day tuliptree descends from a plant named Archaeanthus and not the magnolia, as commonly thought. Using advanced technologies of light, scanning electron and polarizing microscopy, Drs. Dilcher and Romanov studied Archaeanthus fossil flowers and fruits first uncovered by Dr. Dilcher in 1975.

Artist's reconstruction of Archaeanthus

Artist’s reconstruction of Archaeanthus. Credit: Dr. David Dilcher

“We discovered features of the fruits and seeds, not previously detailed, that were more similar to those of the tuliptree line of evolution than to the magnolias,” Dr. Dilcher says in Indiana University’s press release on the study. “Thus, the beautiful tuliptree has a lineage that extends back to the age of the dinosaurs. It has a long, independent history separate from the magnolias and should be recognized as its own flowering plant family.”

Time will tell if the tuliptree remains in the magnolia family, as it is at present, or if this new research leads to a redefinition, but one thing is very clear: Tuliptree can grow to enormous heights, as evidenced by our national champion. But will the Virginia tree remain the national champion? All will be revealed with the release of the Fall 2013 National Register of Big Trees on October 4.

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