Tournament of Trees

2020 Arnold Arboretum Tournament of Trees

The Arnold Arboretum has, at last count, over 15,000 individual plants in its collection of which 8,325 are trees! These represent over 2,000 species of trees that have been carefully documented, many of which are of significant historical and botanical importance.

Our visitors probably know a few species by name and character: oak, maple, magnolia, horse chestnut, cherry, and willow for example. But what about the other trees? Which species would you like to get to know better?

The first ever Tournament of Trees pit lesser known species against each other in a bid to become part of every visitor’s circle of tree friends.

Our Tournament of Trees is complete! The winner is this HYBRID TULIP TREE!

Listen to a special profile of the tree in English, Spanish, or Mandarin here.


Hybrid tulip tree winner announcement
Hybrid tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera x chinense 147-2000*A): This tree was hybridized from trees that spent millions of years thousands of miles apart. It is a hybrid of Liriodendron tulipifera, native to North America, and Liriodendron chinense, native to China. The two trees share a common ancestor, one that grew when the continents were connected millions of years ago. As glaciers melted, sea levels rose and fell, and the shores of what are now North America and Asia emerged. On the now-separate landmasses, two distinct species of tulip trees developed. After all that time, the American and Chinese species were still similar enough that scientists in North Carolina were able to cross them to create this hybrid, which was a gift to the Arboretum in 1981.

In the following interview, a relative newcomer to the Arnold Arboretum, Magnolia x thompsoniana (#252-2019*A) chats with a member of one of the oldest established families in the area, Liriodendron tulipifera x chinense (#147-2000*A), also known as hybrid tulip tree.

Magnolia:  Hello Hybrid Tulip Tree, thanks for meeting me and agreeing to this interview, and congratulations for being named the champion of the Arnold Arboretum’s Tournament of Trees! I’m new here, just moved into Jamaica Plain, not far from the Hunnewell Building. What a beautiful place!

Hybrid Tulip Tree: Thank you. Yes, they say Franklin Park is the crown jewel of the Emerald Necklace, but I think they got it wrong. I’m lucky to have been here all my life.

M: So, you’re a local? I wouldn’t have guessed it with a name like Liriodendron tulipfera x chinense.

T: Well yes I’m a local, though quite by accident. You see, my ancestors on my father’s side are from China, and my mother’s side are from eastern North America. They actually met at the University of North Carolina in the 1970’s. By lucky chance, one of my parents moved here to the Arnold Arboretum in 1981, and I was born in 2000. This is the only home I’ve ever known.

M: Interesting. So, I guess your other relatives don’t visit often, huh?

T: I think the last time they were naturally together was about 12 million years ago, before the family split. You know how hard it is to cross continents and oceans…

M: So sorry to hear. I can’t help but notice that you are very stylishly dressed. Is that Calvin Klein or Tanya Taylor? You know how much Michelle loves Tanya’s florals…Oh, wait, could it be Ban Xiao Xue? His nature references are so haute couture these days.

T: Oh, you are so kind! No, actually, this is Mother Nature.

M: Wow! Tell me about your ensemble.

T: Well, these leaves are iconic: they have four lobes and a notched tip, which makes them easy to remember. My unbranched trunk is perfectly straight (I am rather proud of this, not stooped like so many of my contemporaries) but my favorite design element are the flowers. These two by two-inch perfections are creamy yellow with orange splashes and a mass of anthers and stigmas that are heavenly fragrant. Oh, and the nectar is sweet! I get tickled by tiny beetle feet that visit.

M: Lovely, lovely. You know, I’m new to the area, and you’ve been around a while. What is it like being a part of the Arnold Arboretum social circle? What words of wisdom can you share that will help me understand my neighbors? Any gossip?

T: Well, the Arboretum was originally designed with the most closely related plants grouped together along its central roadway. I’m planted side-by-side with other tulip trees. And you are near us because we are all in the same family.

M: Wait, what? We’re in the same family? I thought you said your parent’s ancestors last saw each other naturally 12 million years ago.

T: I know it seems like distant history, but yes, we’re in the same family. Our ancestors, yours and mine, separated about 100 million years ago, but people ofter comment that my style (especially my flowers) looks somewhat like yours. As people walk down the road, it’s almost like an evolutionary fashion show.

M: That’s intriguing, what do you mean?

T: Oh, just that up ahead are the katsuras with their amazing heart shaped fragrant leaves, the lindens whose flowers produce a most tantalizingly sweet perfume and are the basis for prized honey, and the cork trees with their spongy, quirky bark. Further down the road, you’ll see the maple collection. Between you and me though, I find the maples insufferable! Just because they belong to an elite group in the Plant Collection Network AND are ranked as the most significant collection in the world for conservation purposes, they think they are above us all.

M: Well, look at the time! Hybrid Tulip Tree, I know I just met you, but I feel like you are my newest friend; can I add you to my Circle of Friends contacts?

T: I would be honored! And don’t be bashful—come visit anytime. I’m here every day of the year, and there’s no cost to you, or anyone, when visiting. Although I would prefer if children would stop hanging from my lower limbs. It puts quite a strain on my back.

Learn more about evolutionary science and disjuncts, plants with shared genetics separated by regions.