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Not every soil can bear all things

Hunting the Black Poplar

As our most ancient  native  tree, the story of the European Black Poplar (Populus nigra subsp. betulifolia) is one of decline and fall  from a once common timber species with a substantial economic and cultural significance  to a near vanishing point from the British landscape. Calls for a nationwide recording project in the 1990s1 has  ferreted out a scattered population of about  7,000  ageing trees. London has a fair smattering across 21 boroughs, though most are confined to the rural edges of the Hackney Marshes and along the rivers Lea and Thames.2 There are a few urban loners too such as the sentinel by the Tower of London but closer to home I went in search of the solitary Black Poplar in Russell Square.

Black Poplar Russell Square

Urban Black Poplar

Planted on the East side facing on to the congested one-way system and nudged out by an adjacent London Plane, this Black Poplar ekes out a rather precarious existence as a mono-trunked specimen with stumped limbs. I confess to being rather dismayed at first sighting as, unlike its streamlined Italian and Lombardy cousins,  the native species is a ruggedly robust  character.  Somewhat ungainly and having a typical leaning stance, the grey-brown bark is deeply crevassed with blackened furrows lending it a gloomy appearance. The linearity of the trunk is regularly interrupted by large woody swellings or ‘bosses’ which are a main feature in distinguishing the native Black Poplar from its hybrids.

identifying black poplar

Identifying Black Poplar

Identifying a tree in mid December is perhaps not ideal as much also depends on flower and leaf. This tree is almost certain to be a male clone (see Summary) and only Spring will confirm this when handsome crimson catkins should appear. Commonly known as ‘ Devils Fingers’, the long male flowers are quite distinct from the slightly later, yellow-green female flowers.3

Despite the lateness of the year, the Black Poplar still held  to its top canopy and the fallen serrated leaves displayed some of the usual mid-green mature colouration with variable  triangular size and shape. There was no sign however of the spiral leaf galls that are typically present and caused by a parasitic aphid.

black poplar foliage

Black Poplar foliage

Otherwise known as the Water Poplar,  its natural environs are riverside woodland and floodplains. This backdrop not only aesthetically sets off the true Salicaceaen character but more importantly is the requisite (and declined) habitat  for their stringent seed-germinating requirements. Although Water Poplars exist in a wide variety of urban locations, they have a somewhat stark, high-and-dry appearance compared to their riverine relatives.  Here in Bloomsbury the Black Poplar can only look on rather nostalgically at the  distant fountain where children and pigeons play and bathe with equal enthusiasm.

Black Poplar in Russell Square

Black Poplar in Russell Square

In Greek Mythology, Black Poplars represent the Heliades, the grief-stricken sisters of Phaeton, who were petrified  through perpetually mourning his death. Gazing up at the dark, skeletal structure in January, I can clearly see an association although the tall, angular specimen of Russell Square bears the distinct look of a Sagittarian with hand-held bow. A case of the hunted becoming the hunter perhaps.

Black Poplar in winter

Black Poplar in winter

February Festival of the Trees: Now live at Treeblog. Next month’s festival will be hosted by Rebecca in the Woods


Summary: UK’s Black Poplar Facts.

The European Black Poplar (Populus nigra subsp. betulifolia) is a ‘dioecious’ species but with only 500 recorded females in the UK and with few located  in ideal habitats and close enough  to male trees, virtually none can reproduce by seed.  They have however readily crossed with imported Poplar species to produce fertile hybrids which can also back cross with either parent leading to a dilution of the native species. The majority of  Black Poplars are actually cloned males,  grown from truncheoned cuttings, resulting in such a small genetic variation that they are vulnerable to the threat of disease, such as Poplar Scab currently decimating trees in the North-East. Males were planted in preference to the females with their copious cottonwool seeds.

Most of the UKs trees  are veterans of the 19th and early 20th Century, having been grown when demand for the springy, impact and fire resistant timber was at its industrial peak. A targeted planting conservation scheme across most counties is regenerating the Black Poplar population, co-incident with some life-extending coppicing and pollarding of the geriatric trees.4

Related Post: For the Love of Poplar

1. A Daily Telegraph article ‘Help save our biggest tree from the chop’ triggered a spontaneous national survey.
2. Black Poplars in Hackney (PDF)
3. See Treeaware’s images of Black Poplar catkins
4. A  typical County SAP for Black Poplar Species Action Plan (Sussex)
Further Reading:
London Wildlife Trust – Black Poplar
The Botanical Society of the British Isles – Black Poplar
©Copyright 2011 Laura Thomas.
All rights reserved. Content created by Laura Thomas @PatioPatch

17 comments to Hunting the Black Poplar

  • Dear Laura, A most informative posting on the Black Poplar about which I must confess that I knew very little. As you say, it is not the most graceful of trees and I have to say that given a choice between it and the London Plane tree then I know which I should choose. Nevertheless, it is good to know that measures are being taken to try and prevent these trees disappearing completely. Diversification in all things is, I believe, important. Next time I am by Russell Square I shall attempt to seek it out.
    Edith Hope read my post..Is Everything Quite What It SeemsMy Profile

  • I’m glad that there are conservation efforts going on for this native tree – hopefully they’ll focus on planting them in appropriate locations which is important for longevity.

  • Whenever I see actual poplars I am always puzzled at the common name for our native Lirodendron tulipifera (tulip poplar, though it is more closely related to our magnolias). This black poplar makes me scratch my head more than most… but I think it has wonderful character and am sorry to hear it is growing so sparsely in its native habitat.
    Eliza @ Appalachian Feet read my post..How to Create a Window Farm Real Things ThursdaysMy Profile

  • Love your ‘new’ seasonal header pictures (I may be a bit slow to register the change!). Sad tale of the decline of this rather majestic tree – I love the rough detail of its bark. And indeed your Bloomsbury tree does look as though he has stopped mid-march, bow in hand :-) But as we know, I often see characters in trees! x
    hillwards read my post..New LifeMy Profile

  • Hi Laura, such a wonderful post. Trees are dear to my heart and I have planted many in the garden.
    I knew a little about the Black Poplar but I have learnt a lot today.
    I am glad efforts are being made to help save the trees.
    I shall look out for this species as I live quite near to floodplains.

    I love the bark….such character.
    Tku for such an informative and interesting post.
    cheryl read my post..Tiny woodlandMy Profile

  • I love the character of the black poplar, especially the bark. I have always appreciated the unique triangular shape of poplar leaves. Your photo looks like a face with glowing yellow eyes and plenty of hair everywhere–scary.
    Carolyn @ Carolyn’s Shade Gardens read my post..An Ode to Seed Strain HelleboresMy Profile

  • What an extraordinary tree. So sad they are so much in decline, I would love to see one by water, with that extraordinary trunk and its tendency to lean it would be quite amazing.
    Janet/Plantaliscious read my post..What kind of gardener am IMy Profile

  • hello Laura, beautifully written!

  • - Edith, I expect you would recognise it as immortalised by Constable in ‘The Haywain’. Looking lovelier int its more natural surroundings.
    - Do agree GS and more are being planted along river banks
    - you will probably know it’s relatives Eliza – the Cottonwoods
    - thanks Sara, wintry header has been there a little while ;) Glad I’m not the only one to anthromorphise trees
    - had to research Black Poplar Cheryl as my arboretal knowledge is miniscule. If you see a Black Poplar you can record it with your Council
    - LOL Carolyn – we both saw the scary face in top image :)
    - plan to walk the London rivers again soon Janet so look out for pics of Black Poplar in native surroundings
    - thank you Mike, a veritable compliment from you

  • I enjoyed your informative post Laura. Sadly my knowledge of trees is very scanty and there are very few that I can identify. I must do something to rectify this and will start by looking upwards more often.

  • I too enjoyed your post. Given its natural habitat you have to wonder why the tree was planted in such a situation. It does not look like a bland controllable city tree. If it were an animal it would be released back into the wild near to a river.
    easygardener read my post..Resolution 2 – Seeds sown- not left in the packetMy Profile

  • Anna am educating myself about trees and things are definitely looking up ;)

    Not sure when or why this one was planted here EG but liked your idea of releasing it into the wild

  • Very interesting post about a tree species I wasn’t familiar with before – and I’m amazed at how much the last one does resemble a person holding a bow!
    rebecca read my post..elegy for the red bayMy Profile

  • The bark is wonderfully rough. It reminds me of a long-colled lava flow.
    Joy K. read my post..One Tree- in Close-UpMy Profile