The Monticello Tulip Poplar II

The two enormous Tulip  Poplars towering on either side of the lawn portico of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello transfixed visitors for decades.  I remember standing in awe under them, gazing at the impressive girth of the trunks and the massive spread of the branches above, and noting the supporting cables running throughout. In 2008 the southwest tree succumbed to old age and had to be removed for safety reasons, having not leafed out that year.

In June of 2011 the northwest Tulip Poplar was also removed, as it’s enormous shape leaned towards the house and it was feared to suffer from the same root disease that had killed the southwest tree.

A cross-section of the N.W. Tulip Poplar’s lower trunk sent to Dr. Daniel Druckenbrod of Rider University definitively dated the tree to 1808. This dovetailed nicely with Jefferson’s April 16, 1807 entry in his Garden Book : “planted 1. Laurodendron in margin of S.W. shrub circle from the nursery.”  The ring-width measurements were crossdated with a master chronology of oaks from Monticello extending back to 1728, part of an extensive study of tree dating there numbering some 200 trees.  Dr. Druckenbrod presented his report to the staff of Monticello June 28, 2012, complete with extensive written and photo documentation from the earliest records on both trees.  The report was published in th eJanuary 2014 issue of BioOne.  An abstract may be seen here.

The two tulip poplars appear to have been sister trees, and they are greatly missed for the sheltering presence they provided the house all those years.

The bowls from the N.W. Tulip Poplar show extraordinary density and character due to the tree’s age, the soil it grew in, and remnants of lightning rods and cabling throughout.

Below is a short photo essay on this magnificent tree.

Here is the tree as it leaned towards the house.

As it came down, branches were set to the side allowing access to the trunk.

The logs were moved to the farm site in Shadwell where Jefferson was born.

Out in the field they still had massive presence. 

Kirk McCauley and I coated all the ends with wax and then covered them with tarps on
simple frames to reduce the sun's pounding effect. 

I moved the smaller branches out of the sun and under an enormous hickory tree,
to reduce the checking while allowing them to spalt naturally.

Bob Self, Architectural Conservator, (accompanied by Assistant Curator Justin Sarafin)
arranged for two of the big logs to be sawn up into lumber, and also to create a massive
timber for a salt trough.  Jim Hart brought his Woodmizer and his expertise to the site.

I took my big Stihl chainsaws to the storage shed to rough cut out the inside of the trough. 

Here is the undercutting method I used to take out the thick slabs

Here I am trimming out the end of the cut.

Here is Bob smoothing the cuts with an adz.  A lot of elbow grease went into this phase.

The finished trough in the smoke house.  It began as a 1500 lb blank and weighs some 750 lbs now.

Back in the field I made a cross cut for Dan Drukenbrod to get a definitive date. 
At this level the tree was sound to the core.

Here is the cross cut section that was sent to Dr. Druckenbrod.

A cross cut below that level was taken to make one large table.  It barely fit in the van.

Then I quartered the base, revealing how high the root rot had run.   The colors were spectacular.

Later I had Jim Hart back to saw up some of the last big branch pieces.

These yielded wide boards to be used for various projects after air and then kiln drying. 


Here is a sample bowl from near a branch crotch.  The spalting is most spectacular. 

The Monticello Tulip Poplar bowls are sold primarily by the Monticello Museum Shop.  There are two other turners working with the wood.  Each piece i
s numbered sequentially by the artist, documented by photograph, and is accompanied by a certification card from Monticello.  Sales have been brisk over the years as people can appreciate the sense of history they get with these elegant sections of the tree.   You may contact the Museum Shop  at 434-984-9840 or 1-800-243-1743 to check for availability if you are interested. 

For a bit of Jefferson's own thoughts on trees, go to the Monticello website