(Above) Sample board for mural by Doug Pifer
For about a century, a magnificent tulip tree has stood in the front yard of our house. It has withstood the weather, shaded the house, and maintained its characteristic shape. Its columnar trunk is straight, its open crown forks into a dome like top. The side branches arch gracefully downwards from the main trunk and then sweep upwards at the tips. In May, lovely blossoms appear that resemble green and orange tulips. These mature into candle-like cones of seeds that disperse during the winter, helicoptering to the ground and twinkling in the sun.
Uniquely-shaped leaves turn a beautiful shade of Indian-yellow in the fall. The bark of the tulip tree is smooth on young trunks and branches. As it ages it cracks and breaks into interconnecting fissures in a net-like pattern.
This tulip tree hosts a variety of wildlife that we’ve come to know. Each fall, a yellow-bellied sapsucker arrives and immediately starts to drill parallel rows of sap wells in the trunk of the tree, which the bird revisits throughout the winter. Two species of swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs on the branches. Their caterpillars feed on the leaves. Last summer one of these caterpillars crawled up on our front porch. Behind its head were markings that resembled big eyes. When disturbed, it puffed the front part of its body up to look like the head of a snake. When this defensive bluff didn’t work, two fleshy, bright orange “horns” popped out of the skin behind its head, emitting a strong chemical scent that must taste terrible to a would-be predator.
One late spring night a lovely moth called “tulip tree beauty” landed on the screen door, attracted by the light. Its name is derived from its larvae’s preference for tulip tree leaves. Its two-toned gray wings were finely penciled with concentric, curving lines much like a topographic map.
Tulip tree flowers are beautiful but hard to see even though they are tulip-sized and similar to magnolias, to which they are related. Their greenish color and the large leaves hide them where they appear near the ends of branches.
Each petal has a distinctive mark or band near its base, not black like some tulips but bright orange. The color is pure orange, not yellowish or reddish — almost matching the pigment cadmium orange.
Pigment is important to me right now. I’m commemorating our tulip tree in a two-story mural on the wall of our front stairway inside the house. Images of birds we see in this very tree will be painted semi-hidden among leaves, flowers, and branches. A partial list includes catbird, blue jay, red-eyed and warbling vireo, scarlet tanager, orchard and Baltimore oriole, yellow-bellied sapsucker, downy and red-bellied woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatch, brown thrasher, ruby-throated hummingbird, eastern kingbird, eastern bluebird, mockingbird, cardinal, and yellow-billed cuckoo. For a touch of drama and variety, I’ll depict several of these birds heckling one of our local black rat snakes.
This isn’t just any tulip tree. It’s a lively home I share.
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown.By Doug Pifer