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Kentucky State Tree

Tulip Poplar   Adopted:1994
Kentucky State Tree: Tulip Poplar
Kentucky State Tree: Tulip Poplar

Adoption of the Kentucky State Tree

The Kentucky General Assembly ruled on the issue of an official state tree for the first time in 1956. Overriding contention from advocates of the Indian cigar tree (catalpa tree) and the sycamore tree, the Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation adopting the tulip poplar as the state tree of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. And so it was.

Years passed and, in 1973, the Kentucky General Assembly took up the issue of a state tree for the second time. Of course, Kentucky had already adopted a state tree in 1956. The official state tree, the tulip poplar, had been noted in reference books and in encyclopedias for years, but evidently, that was not enough. An investigation found that the 1956 legislation, adopting the tulip poplar as the official state tree, had never been properly recorded in the Kentucky Statutes. An administrative error? Regardless of the cause, it was ruled that, officially, Kentucky was without a state tree.

It was under these conditions that "crack newspaperman," Joe Creason, a columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal, initiated a campaign to designate the Kentucky coffee tree as the official state tree. Mr. Creason's Kentucky coffee tree campaign, said to be tongue-in-cheek, soon turned into serious business. Any humor intended by the columnist was soon lost to bitter debate over the selection of an official state tree to represent Kentucky. Champions of the Kentucky coffee tree and the tulip poplar rekindled the 1956 debate with intensity.

Of course, supporters of the tulip poplar proposed that the tulip poplar had been the selection of the Kentucky General Assembly in 1956 and should be honored as originally intended.

Historians were enlisted to research the role of the Kentucky coffee tree in Kentucky history. It was found that the seeds in its rubbery reddish-brown pods were once roasted by Native Americans and ground as a coffee substitute by early European settlers. Native Americans also used the powdered roots as ?smelling salts? to help recuperate patients. George Rogers Clark, soldier and explorer, sent some Kentucky coffee tree seeds to Thomas Jefferson remarking that, "It makes beautiful shade and I think it will flourish with you." Indeed, Kentucky coffee trees can be found at Jefferson's Monticello and at Jefferson's University of Virginia. George Washington also collected Kentucky coffee tree seeds on one of his surveying trips in the Ohio River valley and successfully germinated these seeds at his home in Virginia.

Additionally, the wood of the Kentucky coffee tree was highly valued for its rich color and dense grain. Referred to as "Kentucky Mahogany," the wood of the coffee tree was used to build furniture and fence posts.

A particularly avid supporter and a leader of the Kentucky coffee tree lobby was a retired county agent from Berea, Dr. William C. Johnstone. He was known to carry coffee tree seeds in his pockets to distribute to citizens in promotion of the coffee tree. Dr. Johnstone exaggerated, however, when he testified to the General Assembly that the Kentucky coffee tree was close to being an endangered species.

In 1974, it was reported that in spite of the hard drive by the coffee tree people, consensus supported the tulip poplar. Support for the Kentucky coffee tree began to subside.

Then, on August 14, 1974, Joe Creason died. He had served as a sports reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Courier-Journal for over thirty years. Before that, he served as editor of the Benton Tribune-Democrat and the Murray Ledger & Times. Born in Kentucky, raised in Kentucky, Creason's Courier-Journal column, "Joe Creason's Kentucky" was popular throughout the state. He had traveled extensively around Kentucky and there wasn't a county where he didn't have a thousand friends. He was a teller of tall tales and an avid historian. The Creason wit and humor, his friendly manner and his love for Kentucky always showed through his writings.

Joe Creason's death brought the state tree debate to life again. Pressure from the media, wanting to memorialize the revered newsman, regenerated the tension and controversy surrounding the coffee tree bill.

Governor Julian Carroll, who had been a close friend of Creason's, was accused by State Representative Dan Overstreet of using strong-arm tactics in support of the Kentucky coffee tree legislation.

As sales of coffee tree seedlings, plants, paintings, prints and all sorts of related trinkets increased, rumors swirled that the legislation's real purpose was simply to support the nurseries that raised Kentucky coffee trees.

The arguments went back and forth for two years until, finally, on March 8, 1976, Senate Bill No. 150 was approved and the Kentucky coffee tree was " named and designated as the Kentucky state tree."

The adoption of the Kentucky coffee tree as the Kentucky state tree was celebrated on Arbor Day when a coffee tree was planted on the capitol grounds by Governor Julian Carroll. The tree was a gift, given to the Governor by Joe Creason before he died.

It only took a little over a decade before the issue of a state tree was put before the Kentucky Legislature again. The tulip poplar proponents were back.

In 1988, House Bill No. 826 was introduced by State Representative Strong to amend the law to substitute the tulip poplar for the Kentucky coffee tree as state tree. This bill was referred to the Committee on State Government and died there. No further action was taken.

In 1994, State Representative Bentley introduced House Bill No. 128 to dethrone the Kentucky coffee tree and crown the tulip poplar as the state tree. Evidently by 1994, the tulip poplar lobby had their act together.

The tulip poplar proponents were led by David Karem of Louisville and Dan Kelly of Springfield. They argued that literature was still proclaiming the tulip poplar Kentucky's state tree and that so many references to the tulip poplar were in print, the state would have to reimburse publishing companies for making the correction. This would be a major expenditure for the Commonwealth!

In the "Keep the Kentucky Coffee tree" camp, it was argued that the tulip poplar was the state tree for two of Kentucky's neighboring states, Tennessee and Indiana. Why, they argued, would Kentucky want to share a state tree?

It may be that the poplar proponents had learned something from the early seventies campaign for the Kentucky coffee tree. Historians were brought out again, this time to testify to the significance of the tulip poplar in early Kentucky history.

Because of their size and growth patterns, it was found, tulip poplars had served admirably as canoes and dugouts for early pioneers. The original "canoe" was, in fact, a boat made by hollowing out a large light log. As if to counter the famous associates of the coffee tree, it was pointed out that, after Daniel Boone had failed to acquire land grants for the Transylvania Company in Kentucky, he headed down the Ohio River with his family and belongings all packed in a 50 or 60 foot long tulip poplar canoe.

The large trunks of the tulip poplar had also served as hiding places from Indians. And because the wood of the tulip poplar was light and easily worked, pioneers often used it for furniture and log cabins. State Senator Virgil Moore commented that his forefathers had crossed the Cumberland Gap and built their homes with poplars.

Tulip poplar "pipes" and "troughs" were used in Mammoth Cave pits for mining "nitrate" or saltpeter for gunpowder during the War of 1812. The cool, dry air of Mammoth Cave has preserved these artifacts.

It was also proposed that the tulip poplar is the fastest growing and most adaptive tree in Kentucky.

On January 1, 1994, a floor amendment was proposed in the House of Representatives making both the tulip poplar and the Kentucky coffee tree official representatives of the state. This amendment was defeated.

The Kentucky coffee tree didn't get the backing it needed and House Bill No. 128 was approved in both the Kentucky House of Representatives and in the Kentucky Senate. It was signed by the leaders of both houses on February 25, 1994 and forwarded to Governor Brereton C. Jones for his approval. On March 9, 1994 the tulip poplar was officially returned to its role as the Kentucky state tree without the Governor's signature.

The tulip poplar is also referred to as yellow poplar, tuliptree, tulip-poplar, white-poplar, or whitewood.

The Kentucky Revised Statutes

The following information is excerpted from the Kentucky Revised Statutes, Title 1, Chapter 2, Section 2.095.

Additional Information

Kentucky State Tree: Tulip Poplar
Kentucky State Tree: Tulip Poplar

Liriodendron tulipifera: University of Connecticut Plant Database of Trees, Shrubs and Vines.

Yellow-Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera L.): Tree Identification Fact Sheet from the Virginia Tech.

Plant Profile for Liriodendron tulipifera L. (Tuliptree): USDA, NRCS. 2004. The PLANTS Database, Version 3.5 ( National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA.

Liriodendron tulipifera L. (Yellow-Poplar): United States Department of Agriculture: Forest Service: Agriculture Handbook 654: Silvics of North America.

Liriodendron tulipifera (Tulip Tree): Plant Encyclopedia from MyGardenGuide.

State Tree List: List of all of the state state trees.

Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky: (Kentucky Nature Studies) (Hardcover) by by Mary E. Wharton & Roger W. Barbour. University Press of Kentucky; Reissue edition (December, 1994)

A Field Guide to Eastern Trees (Peterson Field Guides) (Paperback): by George A. Petrides, Janet Wehr (Illustrator), Roger Tory Peterson (Series Editor), Houghton Mifflin; 2 edition (July 15, 1998).

A Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs : Northeastern and north-central United States and southeastern and south-central Canada (Peterson Field Guides(R)): by George A. Petrides (Illustrator), Roger Tory Peterson (Series Editor), Houghton Mifflin; 2 edition (September 6, 1973).

A Field Guide to Eastern Forests : North America (Peterson Field Guides(R)) (Paperback): by John C. Kricher (Photographer), Gordon Morrison (Illustrator), Roger Tory Peterson (Series Editor), Houghton Mifflin (October 15, 1998).

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees : Eastern Region: by Elbert Luther Little. Knopf; Chanticleer Press ed edition (May 12, 1980).

America's Famous and Historic Trees: From George Washington's Tulip Poplar to Elvis Presley's Pin Oak (Hardcover) by Jeffrey G. Meyer. America's Famous and Historic Trees tells the stories of various trees that Meyer and his cohorts rescued or propagated: oftentimes, when trees were going to be cut down, he and his workers headed off the bulldozers, rescuing the tree with their massive tree hoe. Other trees--like the Indian Marker Pecan in southeast Dallas--were propagated before they died.

Trees : National Champions (Hardcover) by Barbara Bosworth. Bosworth captures the ineffable grace and dignity of trees with clarity and directness: the green ash that shades a midwestern crossroads, the common pear that blooms in a Washington field, and the Florida strangler fig with its mass of entwining aerial roots. Her black and white photographs, panoramic views taken with an 8 x 10 camera, show the immensity of the largest species and the hidden triumphs of the smallest

Plants, Seeds & Flowers: Bulbs, seeds, plants, fertilizer, plant containers and more.

Gardening Tools: Pruners, rakes, shovels, hoes, trowels, cultivators and tillers, greenhouses, yard carts and more.

State Names, Seals, Flags, and Symbols: A Historical Guide, Third Edition - Benjamin F. Shearer and Barbara S. Shearer, Greenwood Press, 2002

State Names, Flags, Seals, Songs, Birds, Flowers and Other Symbols: A Study based on historical documents giving the origin and significance of the state names, nicknames, mottoes, seals, flowers, birds, songs, and descriptive comments on the capitol buildings and on some of the leading state histories, Revised Edition - George Earlie Shankle, Ph.D., The H.W. Wilson Company, 1938 (Reprint Services Corp. 1971)

Source: Kentucky Revised Statutes, November 6, 2005
Source: Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, November 6, 2005
Source: The Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, November 14, 2005
Source: State Names, Seals, Flags, and Symbols: A Historical Guide, Third Edition - Benjamin F. Shearer and Barbara S. Shearer, Greenwood Press, 2002
Source: State Names, Flags, Seals, Songs, Birds, Flowers and Other Symbols: Revised Edition (Reprint)- George Earlie Shankle, Ph.D., The H.W. Wilson Company, 1938

To Kansas State Tree. To Louisiana State Tree.


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