Tulip Poplar, Tulipifera Liriodendron, is one of the most strangely beautiful trees of the southeast, thanks to it's elegant growth habits and unusual flowers. The trees grow very tall and straight, and have slightly drooping branches with broad, uniquely shaped leaves. There were several old tulip trees in my backyard when I was a kid. The twigs had a sweet, mysterious scent that I loved.
Revisiting the trees this year, I was intrigued again by the smell of the fresh twigs. I wondered if these magnificent trees had an herbal tradition behind them. As a matter of fact, they do! Read on to learn what I discovered.
Tulip poplar has many ethnobotanical and historical uses. All parts of the tree, from leaves to seeds to bark to root, seem to have been employed at some point in the past, but the inner bark or root seem to have been the most widely used.
It is used as a nervine, tonic, antihelmintic, febrifuge, anti-rheumatic, gastrointestinal aid, and anti-diarrheal. The bark was used for intermittent fevers, and it was sometimes used against malaria as a substitute for cinchona bark.
(By the way, cinchona is the stuff that the tonic water of gin-and-tonic fame was originally made of, so of course now I'm wondering what a tulip tree gin and tonic would taste like. Sounds like a fun experiment to me!)
Other uses included an ingredient in cough syrup and as a wash or poultice for wounds and broken bones.
From what I read, Cook, in The Physiomedical Dispensatory, 1869, sums up its uses in the Eclectic literature very nicely:
"The bark of the liriodendron is one of the mildest and least bitter of the tonics, chiefly relaxant and only moderately stimulant, but with no astringency whatever. While it improves the appetite and digestion to a fair extent, and for this purpose is unsurpassed in convalescence, its most valuable action is upon the nervous system and uterus. In nervousness, nervous irritability, hysteria, and chronic pains through the womb, it is an agent of the greatest efficacy–both soothing and sustaining. The menses are not influenced by it; but it proves valuable in chronic dysmenorrhea as well as in leucorrhea, prolapsus of a mild grade, and the uterine suffering incident to pregnancy. By its influence on the nervous system it sometimes promotes the flow of urine; and it favors greater freedom of the bowels, without being in any sense cathartic. If combined with spikenard, boneset, or other agents influencing the lungs, its virtues will be directed largely to these organs; and then is of peculiar service in old coughs and pulmonary weakness. The mildness of its action sometimes suggests inertness, but this is quite an error; for its gentleness increases its value as a peculiar nervine tonic, and makes it very acceptable to the stomach; though it is not an agent fitted to languid or sluggish conditions, or states of depression."
Translation: Cook thinks it useful for certain female problems, as a digestive tonic useful for improving the appetite and digestion after illness, and that it has very gentle but effective actions on the nervous system. He also states that if it is used with lung supporting herbs it helps with old coughs and helps strengthen the lungs.
"It is stimulant and tonic to the digestive apparatus, improving digestion and blood making. It also exerts an influence upon the nervous system, strengthening innervation and relieving those symptoms called nervous."
If you are interested in learning more about Tulip Tree, here are some of the resources I found from around the web. You can also read the post I wrote here about foraging for tulip poplar and making extract.
King's American Dispensatory and Lloyd's Drugs and Medicines of North America (which is very comprehensive) have more great info on Tulip Tree. Thanks to Henriette Kress's Herbal Web Page and Blog, they are available to read for free online, along with many other antique herbal books.
One of my other standby online references, the University of Michigan's ethnobotanical database, turned up another good general list of historical uses: just type 'liriodendron' into the search box to repeat the search.
All the best,