Meet my favourite tree the black poplar

PUBLISHED: 10:28 11 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:09 20 February 2013

Black Poplars

Black Poplars

All trees are special, but some are more special than others. The oak, with its stout heart is symbolic of Britain and our seafaring heritage. The willow, gracefully lining riversides, provides the wood for our national game. The horse chestnut is...

Bent trunks
Just to be formal for a moment, I'm talking about the native black poplar, Populus nigra subspecies betulifolia. These trees can be picked out from a distance; they are of great stature and tower head and shoulders above neighbouring oaks and ashes. They develop an exceptional girth and have a peculiarity that marks them out - their trunks almost invariably grow in a gentle curve.

Like their close relatives willows you'll find black poplars typically growing along the banks of rivers and streams. Indeed they have been planted here for centuries and felled for their timber. Poplars grow quickly and produce low quality, rather fibrous wood. Its traditional use was cart boards requiring regular replacement. They were also used as floor boards because of a key feature - they resist fire. Yes that's right, wood that doesn't burn!

Fast and straight
Black poplar was a mainstay of our timber industry, but now it has become Britain's rarest native timber tree. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries new species of poplar were discovered abroad and introduced to Britain proving to be faster and straighter growing, replacing our native poplar. Latterly, plant breeders have created hybrid poplars that perform even better. So the days of the black poplar were numbered.

As a native tree one would naturally assume that it will survive in the wild without being planted. Sadly that's not the case. Black poplars have very exacting reproductive requirements. They were originally trees of the soggy forests that covered our flood plains, revelling in the occasional inundation as rivers burst their banks with winter deluge.

Mud and fluff
The post-flood mud is a perfect medium to germinate the thousands of fluffy seeds produced by female trees. These seeds only stay viable for a few days and the seedlings will soon die if the mud dries out. These are very picky trees.

Flood plain forests had largely disappeared by Neolithic times; these rich, fertile soils proving too temping for pre-historic farmers. With the forests felled only a few black poplars would have survived, but our ancestors would have been quick to realise their potential for timber and so cultivated them.

Truncheon clones
With willows and poplars there is no need to wait for them to set seed to grow more trees. They grow readily from cuttings and a "truncheon" planted in moist ground will soon sprout. A cutting is a clone of its parent and male trees were mostly selected as they don't produce the massive quantity of fluff.

So, the fate of the black polar seemed sealed. Their habitat destroyed, an all male population, and replaced as a timber tree by foreign interlopers.

By the latter part of the 20th century black poplars were a forgotten tree. None had been planted since the mid nineteenth century and those were rapidly approaching the end of their lives. One man, botanist Edgar Milne-Redhead almost single-handedly reminded the nation of the existence of this tree via his campaign that led to the Daily Telegraph black poplar hunt. Through the 1990s some 3000 individual trees were identified and recorded nationwide.

The Shropshire connection
Black poplars aren't found everywhere. They occur in hotspots (actually wetspots). Notable areas include the Vale of Aylesbury, Manchester and south Shropshire. Our claim to fame lies in having a world renowned black poplar. The Arbor Tree in Aston on Clun stands out as you pass along the Craven Arms to Clun road as it is decorated with flags. Every year on the last Sunday in May Arbor Day celebrations take place around the tree.

Arbor day is an eccentric mixture of celebration. The timing of the event harks back to oak apple day (29th May) the day the monarchy was restored after Oliver Cromwell's brief "reign". A mock marriage ceremony between a local boy and girl remembers the wedding in 1786 of local squire John Marston who bequeathed money for the upkeep of the tree. But more ancient still is the distant echo of pagan Celtic tree veneration that has survived in very few places in Britain.

The future's bright
Not only is Shropshire a hotspot for black poplars, but it's a hotspot for black poplar conservation. Pioneering work was done here by Dr Fiona Cooper using genetic fingerprinting to identify true native trees and develop a conservation strategy. Local nurseries, such as Potters Farm near Ludlow, have been collecting and growing on trees. And the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty has been grant-aiding planting of black poplars in all the right places.

So as you travel around Shropshire look a little more closely at the trees. Pick out the ones that are a little bit taller, have a bent trunk or are decorated with flags. Stop and take a little time to seek these trees out then you may just have a close encounter with Britain's rarest native timber tree - the black poplar.

Arbor Day 2008 begins at 1pm on Sunday 25 May at Aston on Clun

A free guide to black poplars can be downloaded at http://www.shropshirehillsaonb.co.uk/bluehills/poplars_intro.htm

John Hughes
Shropshire Wildlife Trust

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