Usefulness and services of the tree :
Features and characters of the individual
This type of tree was very fashionable in 18th century parks and the seeds were subject to trafficking. That’s because everything about the yellow poplar/tulip tree attracts attention: its grey bark in small wafers, its red-brown branches, its yellow autumn foliage, its leaves with their unique/unusual shape – and most of all its large yellow flowers in the shape of tulips. It now holds a place in gardening history.
The Tulip tree in Hap Park, is a representative of the first flowering plants that graced our planet with their presence. This tree belongs to a very ancient botanical family, Magnoliaceae, which marks a turning point in the plant world’s evolution. As you get closer to the tree, you can see the large, peculiar flowers all year long. They can either be found on the tree, or at the foot of the tree. They are yellow in spring and summer, brown in the autumn and winter.
In picking one, you take a sudden leap into the past – 135 million years to be exact! You have an extremely original flower in your hand. The petals are all identical, arranged in a single spiral. They form a neat little parcel, yet come off very easily. Several thousand years separate this primitive little flower from more evolved flowers such as tulips, roses and orchids.
A Pioneer Amongst Pioneers
Tulip trees are huge trees that grow in the wild in North America. They colonised the land just east of the Appalachian Mountains. This pioneering species formed gigantic forests that looked like cathedrals, their botanical arches rested on 30 metre columns and their rooves were 60 metres high.
European pioneers who landed on North American shores in the 17th century were smitten with these giant trees. The properties of their wood did not go unnoticed: very solid but light, rot-proof, water-resistant, as well as parasite-resistant, especially when it came to termites... There was good reason why Native Americans made their canoes out of tulip tree trunks! This ‘canoe wood’ enabled European settlers to build their homes and protect their facades from bad weather. It also enabled them to move about and contributed to their settlement to a great extent.
However, the tulip tree did not accompany the pioneers beyond the barrier of the Appalachian mountains. This pioneering tree followed botanists and gardeners on their path towards the East. It crossed the Atlantic to conquer England, then the old continent where it took permanent residence as an ornamental tree.
Conquering European Parks
Botanists took an interest in the exotic beauty of this tree. They named it ‘Liriodendron Tulipifera’, which means ‘the lily tree that bears tulips’. Only resemblance with the latter is implied in its common name in English though (‘Tulip Tree’). It’s not just the flowers, but also the leaves that are reminiscent of the shape of a tulip. The leaves especially have a remarkable shape: they are palmate with four pointed lobes; their outline is smooth; their shape is geometrical. You could trace a square in their leaf blade.
The tulip tree was so original, that it became an essential part of the fashionable ‘American Gardens’ in England during the 18th century. It then quickly crossed the Channel. Its seeds were highly sought-after and were sold at a high price. Big landowners were known to pick them off trees in order to grow their own to adorn their parks.
The tulip tree in Hap Park, was probably planted during the development of the park throughout Mr Jean Felix Hap’s residence, around 1858–1860. It acclimatised rapidly to its green setting: a real haven of peace and a well of biodiversity. Seemingly, it enjoyed the rich and moist soil of this fragment of Maelbeek valley. It has grown so well that it now plays a central role in the landscape.
Everything about this tree is eye-catching, regardless of what season it is. Its bark cracking into small silvery plates, its red-brown twigs, its odd little creamy yellow flowers, its tender green foliage in spring which turns bright yellow in autumn, its dark brown fruit in the form of elongated cones that spend their winter nestling on the branches... This tree is a real representative of its kind in Brussels, one of the most beautiful types of natural heritage within the region.
The Emblem of Hap Park
The tulip tree sits near the park entrance on the side nearest Chaussée de Wavre. Its majestic presence fascinates those strolling by. Its imposing size is what impresses most: its straight silhouette, its ample crown* perched high up on three enormous trunks, the top reaching 28 metres high.
Only the giant’s visible face conquers the park’s grounds. From the tree’s largest roots, the main root plunges straight downwards under the trunk, exploring the soil deep under the tree’s foliage. It provides an especially solid anchor which ensures its stability. Fine, shallow roots stem from the main roots. They gather water and minerals from the soil to feed the tree. They spread out from the base of the tree, spanning in all directions and covering a distance of 1.5–2 times the height of the tree. To get a real understanding of the tulip tree’s sprawling roots, you can stand in the centre of the park on the grass facing the Orangery. The fine roots pass straight under your feet and peacefully continue their exploration behind you.
The tree has also conquered the heavens over time, occupying a part of the park’s sky. Each main branch forms a succession of small bridges. This particular structure reflects great age of the tree. The tree is no longer growing, neither in height nor in width. It merely renews the tips of its branches: they grow regularly, curl up, and then die. This is why you might sometimes see small pieces of dead wood on the grass. The tree still has a certain stamina as it continues to reproduce its branches: it almost looks as if it is playing leapfrog! It is still young. Tulip trees are known to live for a long time, sometimes up to half a century.
This portrait is enriched with:
- an illustration from the Belgian Federal State Collection on permanent loan to the Meise Botanical Garden. See attached. Thanks to the library (heritage collection) for this contribution. https://www.plantentuinmeise.be/en/home/
-and a series of photos of trees from the BelTrees' collection paired with this tulip tree.