Thomas Jefferson described the Tulip Poplar as "The Juno of our Groves" when he forwarded seeds to a Parisian friend, Madame de Tesse, in 1805. The Tulip Poplar, also called Yellow Poplar or Tuliptree, is a fast growing tree and the tallest hardwood species of the eastern North American forest. It is both a majestic and graceful tree and is especially treasured in European parks and gardens, where it was first described in 1687. Its dramatic, golden yellow autumn color, its ornamental, orange and green, tulip-like flowers, and its unusual leaves and quick growth lend this species the mythological glory Thomas Jefferson justly admired.
The poplar tree by the southwest corner of the house was taken down in June 2008. Questions still remain about the age of this tree. Normally, aging a tree is relatively simple. It can be determined by taking core samples from the trunk and counting the growth rings, but this tree had been hollow for over 100 years and the live wood comprised only 17% of the trunk's circumference at the base of the tree. (Tree trunks are like pipes, and their structure and bearing capacity is based on that outside strength.)
Researchers always "considered" the tree on the southwest side original to Jefferson's lifetime because of a Garden Book notation on April 16, 1807: "planted 1. Laurodendron in margin of S. W. shrub circle from the nursery.". This places a tulip poplar in the general area of the present tree. A plan composed by the Garden Club of Virginia for the restoration of Monticello's flower gardens identified the tree as "original" in 1941. This tree, along with a companion also on the west front, stands around 120 feet high.
On the other side of the argument, George Van Yahres, who moved his tree company, in large part, from New York to Charlottesville in the 1920s to care for Monticello's trees, wrote in 1926 that the tree was not "original." Restoration architects, overseen by Fiske Kimball, also dismissed the Jefferson connection to this tree in a sketch composed of Monticello's trees about fifteen years later. There are pictures of the tree dating back to the turn of the 20th century, but it is unclear what the exact age is from photos.
With the lack of physical and documentary evidence, the tree's true age will remain a mystery.
The tree was "topped" at about 40 feet high around 1900. George Van Yahres pruned the tree, at the time a "badly diseased" hollow stump, to create the four "fingers" or limbs that defined the canopy of the tree before it was removed. In 1978, George's son, Mitch Van Yahres, alleviated the concerns of the Monticello Board of Trustees, by pruning the canopy of the tree to enhance wind resistance by eliminating the "sail" effect of the dense foliage. Mitch also cabled both the large tulip poplars on the West Front to other large trees in order to possibly deflect them away from the house in a hurricane. In 1997, concerns about the structural safety of this tree emerged again. One consulting arborist recommended that the old tulip poplar be removed immediately. A team of arborists, engineers, and architects convened to again preserve the tree, this time by developing an internal, flexible cabling system.
The tree was removed in June 2008. The tree had been declining even further since 2006, its root system compromised by old age, restricted space, and an invasion of a root disease, Phytophthora. The foliage in the canopy of the tree was so thin that the limbs were becoming scalded by the sun, and the wood of the tree was beginning to dry out. The wood would have become dryer and more brittle, and there were concerns about the structural safety of the tree.
↑ This section based on Peggy Cornett, CHP Information Sheet.
↑ This section based on Peter Hatch and Dan Jordan, Thomas Jefferson Foundation Memorandum, June 23, 2008.