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The official state tree of Kentucky is the tulip poplar, or Liriodendron tulipifera. This tree is a type of magnolia that probably gets its name from its yellowish blooms, which, to some, resemble the blooms of tulips. The tulip poplar was first designated as the state tree of Kentucky in 1956, but, due most likely to a clerical error, the state's legislative decision was never written down. This oversight is believed responsible for a 40-year debate over the matter, in which one side promoted the designation of the Kentucky coffee tree as the state's official tree symbol, while the other side promoted the designation of the tulip poplar as the state's official tree. Eventually, on 9 March 1994, the tulip poplar was again chosen as the state tree of Kentucky.
The tulip poplar can be found growing throughout the eastern United States, and can grow to a height of about 100 feet (30.5 meters). They often thrive in mountainous areas, though these trees generally need direct sunlight to reach their full growth potential.
Those Kentuckians who supported the designation of the tulip poplar as the state tree of Kentucky believe that the tree has historical significance in the state. Early settlers are said to have preferred the wood of these trees for building materials, since it is generally soft and easy to manipulate with tools. Since tulip poplar trees usually grow quite fast and can have large, hollow trunks, early settlers may have sheltered in them during skirmishes with Native Americans. The wood of these trees was also used to build saltpeter mining equipment in Kentucky's Mammoth Caverns.
Debate about the designation of the tulip poplar as Kentucky's state tree. The Kentucky General Assembly adopted the tulip poplar as the official state tree of Kentucky in 1956, but, apparently, they forgot to write down the law. This oversight came to light in 1973, and the General Assembly was asked to reconsider the matter. Many felt that the Kentucky coffee tree, known for its attractive wood and for its aromatic seeds, should have been designated as the state's official tree instead of the tulip poplar.
It was, however, eventually pointed out that most of the state's officially sanctioned writings, educational texts and reference materials already listed the tulip poplar as the state tree of Kentucky, due to the 1956 ruling. Should the official state tree designation be changed, these materials would have to be re-printed, at considerable cost to the state government. It was furthermore decided that the tulip poplar had probably been more valuable to the state's residents throughout history. The matter was eventually resolved in 1994, when the tulip poplar was again chosen as the state's official tree.