Rainbow Poplar

The term “Rainbow Poplar” does not refer to a separate wood species, but rather, is a designation of Yellow Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) that has been mineral stained. The resulting mineral stained wood—which, although not necessarily common, is by no means rare or scarce—exhibits a variety of colors ranging from green, purple, black, red, etc. It is this distinct variety of colors that turns an otherwise oridnary piece of Poplar into the intriguing Rainbow Poplar. The precise cause of these streaks and discolored wood produced in certain trees is not fully understood.

See the page on regular Poplar for more information on mechanical and working characteristics of the wood.

A special thanks to Mike Leigher for providing the wood sample of this wood species.

Rainbow Poplar (sanded)
Rainbow Poplar (sanded)

Rainbow Poplar (sealed)
Rainbow Poplar (sealed)

Rainbow Poplar (endgrain)
Rainbow Poplar (endgrain)
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Sara Gr

Has anyone had luck with preserving the colors? I have a few pieces that I’ll be working with in the next few months, and I selected them for their vibrant purples and pinks.

I understand that it browns over time – do we know whether that is due to oxidation? UV exposure? Both? Something else?

I purchased some Osmo UV Protection Oil in “Clear Satin” to try, but I’d love to hear what y’all know about keeping the colors as true as possible for as long as possible.


I’ve had luck preserving the color by sealing with modern masters dead flat exterior varnish followed by several coats of minwax polycrylic. In my experience any oil finish will immediately mute the colors turning the blues and purples to brown and black.

Sara Gr

Thanks for the heads up! I haven’t tested my finish options yet, but everything I have on hand are all oil finishes. What is the benefit of using the varnish first, followed by the polycrylic? (learning question – I haven’t worked with varnish before)


The Modern Masters Dead Flat, for some reason I won’t pretend to understand, doesn’t affect the colors anywhere near as much as any other finish I’ve tried. And I’ve tried a bunch ’cause I have 5 acres of very overcrowded woods that needs thinning, a good percentage of which is poplar and, so far, about 20 or 30% of the poplar I’ve milled has been raibowed and I’d love to preserve as much of the color as possible. It’s a water based product so it’s very easy to apply, as well. A sponge brush works nicely. Even the minwax polycrylic,… Read more »

Sara Gr

Gorgeous! Thank you for sharing :) I’m likely to do a series of finish tests on most of the woods that I work with as I expand my repertoire, so I’ll report back if I come up with anything else that works well. I just wish I had more rainbow poplar to play with – mine came from a lumberyard near my friend’s house – about 3 hours away – for $$, so I’m inclined to make the most of every inch I have. Thinning and milling your own acreage sounds like hard but rewarding work!

Steve vella

Is it possible to take plain yellow poplar subjected to minerals and try to create your own rainbow Poplar

Trev Scott

I’m a sawmiller in New Zealand I’m also a forester and Arborist, my understanding it is bacterial heart stain. We get the same colors running through the Tulip trees growing here. many different colors. Bacterial heart stain is common in Polus spp here too, but its a black heart staining that dried to a light tan. Acer negundo Box Maple has a orange staining again my understanding from bacteria. A lot of different trees from all over the world grow here. Another with distinct bacterial coloration is Pepper tree Schinus molle. I doubt that lightning strike has a lot to… Read more »

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Acer negundo releases a chemical that stains the wood. It’s a response to infection, yes, but also to mechanical injury.

Paul Wood

Wow! That’s beautiful wood, in my opinion! I’ve been trying to find colored poplar like this for a project. The stuff available here is no where near that pretty. But it can be nice.
I wondered if you could tell me? Do these colors change with age, or can I finish it in a way that will preserve these original colors?


I have encountered various colors in yellow poplar. Dark purple, red, black, are the main unusual colors. None of the trees showed evidence of lightning and all grew in a creek bottom. But what seems strange is that the colored streaks did not extend all the way to the ground, or even all the way up the tree toward the crown. Had it been a mineral from the ground, I would suspect the mineral stain would go the entire length of the then sapwood. If a lightning strike is the cause, I would likewise expect the streak to extend all… Read more »


A lot of this is speculation, as mineral streaking could be caused by lightning strikes, many years before harvesting. Or it could be caused by a seasonally harsh weather change that lasts for 6+ months, or it could be a certain bacteria that is only alive for certain months. I don’t think anyone truly knows what causes the streaking or “rainbow wood” effect. So I believe this post will be filled with a lot of speculation. My understanding of these streaks as I was taught in Lumber Grading School was that it’s somewhat caused by trauma to the tree in… Read more »


I am told that “Mineral Poplar/ Rainbow Poplar” is a result of growing where cattle are raised.


I’m an arborist in the deep south. I’ve cut down hundreds of tulip poplar, huge and small. The “rainbow” is almost always caused by lightning strikes, though the degree of coloration varies. I can almost always tell if a log will be rainbow poplar before felling the tree from outer evidence of lightning damage. We have some incredible specimens in our warehouse that we’ve turned into live-edged slabs: 4 foot wide, 8 foot long, and as a colorful as a gay pride parade. The owner of the property where this particular log came from said the lightning strike set the… Read more »


Not to get into a philosophical debate but, the trees were struck by lightning because they were full of mineral deposits.

Wes Floyd

I work at a place that involves pallets and found one made out of poplar w beautiful coloring. I took it apart and then glued it back together in segments. I then cut it round on the band saw and mounted it on my lathe. Turned into a 13″ diameter bowl, 4″deep, and if I say so myself, quite beautiful, considering what it started out as.


my first project with this wood

Alan Lang

I made an iPad stand out of 3/5 and 1/2 inch square stock. When I’m at a lumber store I always pick thru the poplar looking for the good stuff. I’d post pics but I don’t see how.


Same here, I like to rescue incredible polar I find on pallets. Here’s two pictures of the best ones I ever found (in the middle).


Can this happen in balsam poplar too? I cut some and it had green, purple, red, and blue colors through out the heartwood. It doesn’t look like spalting it looks a lot like rainbow poplar.

Jacob Strauss

Most of the time, I see these streaks surrounding a couple of bug holes, so maybe it’s caused by a fungus brought in with the borer, kind of like ambrosia maple


While it can be utterly drab a majority of the time, poplar can yield some real gems at times. That’s why I always rummage through the poplar bin at the big box stores. From “rainbow” mineral streaks to birds-eyes to tiger-stripes to strong medullary rays-can do everything! Just very, very inconsistently. Btw I love this site! Been using it for a while now. Quite handy. Thank you!

Katarzyna Pisz

I’ve never seen a drab peace of poplar. Some are full of color which work well in accent peaces; others monochrome which lend themselves beautifully in minimalistic environments where a person can unwind from the busy and chaotic modernized world.

Last edited 3 years ago by Katarzyna Pisz
Ralph Trueblood

David Chambers: You’ll be lots more famous if you can produce live *non*-non-dried poplar, whether you pass current through it or not. Cut it down and it’s already seasoned!

Navarro Edwards

Is Rainbow Poplar or just Poplar safe for cutting boards? I’ve heard that it’s toxic .


I’ve not heard that it’s toxic but it is too soft of a wood to use for cutting boards.


I make cheese board or serving board out of the boards, since it is so soft.


My in-laws had a Kentucky board fence put in and they gave me the left over wood. Its all rough cut so I started planing some down and a lot of it turned out to be rainbow poplar. Ill attach a picture if possible. I ended up with a few 1x6x8′ boards.


What did you for the drying process n what did you do to finish like sanding grit n products to coat it thanks

Anthony Retzlaff

Regardless, it is beautiful, I seek it out every time I’m in Menards. Absolutely beautiful wood.

William atkins

No, it absorbs mineral from a swamp near it, I’m a logger, can confirm.

Gary Fay

I work at a sawmill here in Tennessee I would also confirm this.

Chad huett

I just cut one up today that was lightning struck a couple years ago. At first I thought it was ruined so I started reading and am hoping that’s what I have. :-)

David Chambers

Not being in any way a wood expert (just a DIY guy), I think I have an excellent theory about how Yellow Poplar becomes “mineral” stained: I recently purchased a long 8/4 Poplar board, well over a foot wide, for a project. It was definitely rainbowed from one end. Every color, almost just like what Mike pictured for us, but even more colors: yellow, blonde, dark brown, very dark brown, burgundy, purple and green. That tree had been struck by lightning, as evidenced by the three-foot split from that same end of my board, where both sides of the split… Read more »

Thomas Hudnall

The mineral staining improves the conductivity of the tree. This makes them more likely to be struck as well as providing a conductive path for the electron rebalance to follow.

Jacob Strauss

That seems to explain (to a small degree) why a 5 foot piece of Rainbow Poplar I got from Home Depot was acting a bit weird when I was lichtenberg burning it. Although, I’m still trying to figure out why it kept burning normally even after finding a path between the two probes. It would just connect for a split second and then it would act as if it never reached and it kept burning until it found a second path that stayed active after reaching, and the one it found first suddenly became active again at the same time… Read more »

Paul Wood

Or… getting struck by lightning opens the wood making it more likely to accommodate mineral. The chicken or the egg, and the rest of it.


As a lineman for power company n a Woodmizer owner I picked up some big poplar n when I loaded on mill noticed damage on it that looks like when high voltage line near a tree contacting it now n then causes n it was a awesome rainbow for 40’ of this 32” diameter tree I didn’t fell it or I would be 100% positive but sure looks like it to me damage from high voltage wires, but I just picked up another this week that we felled no wires near but had damage from maybe lightning n it was… Read more »