The Popular Poplar Trees-a Fascinating Family.

Notes from a Lancashire Countryman.

Around the environs of our local lake the prominent tree is the grey poplar. They are members of a fascinating family of trees which include the white poplar, Populus alba, the black poplar Populus nigra and hybrids occurring between the species as we shall see. The grey poplars around the environs of our local wetland are of a great age and maintenance is a regular requirement to safeguard visitors and the working Countryside Rangers from falling branches or indeed falling trees.

Nevertheless they are beautiful trees that attract much wildlife to their trunks and boughs and they enhance the locality with their beauty. Poplars and their close relatives are all members of the Salicaceae- the Willow family. The black poplar is a handsome tree which has a tendency to lean, and it presents to the observer large arching boughs, that can not fail to please the tree lover. From a distance those familiar with the tree will recognise the characteristic shape with ease. Closer to the tree the trunk can be identified by its rugged fissured bark especially so on older trees.

The root system is far reaching it is greedy for water and is a characteristic tree of flood plains It is capable of reaching a height of 100 feet. The flowers of P.nigra in common with the family members are catkins. Seeds are surrounded by downy fluffy hairs which aid transportation of the seeds. The foliage of this fine tree are stalked and relatively large being up10cm long. It is unfortunate that this tree is now becoming rare in the U.K. and most of the trees seen around wetlands and similar situations are hybrids between the European and Canadian black poplars and given the scientific name of Poulus x canadensis. These too, have the relatively large leaves and the reddish catkins.

The relatively large foliage of the hybrid black poplar. Photograph by D.A.L.
The relatively large foliage of the hybrid black poplar. Photograph by D.A.L.
The tree itself makes an impressive sight. Photograph by D.A.L.
The tree itself makes an impressive sight. Photograph by D.A.L.

The white poplar,P.alba, is a deciduous but is far more broadly columnar and produces young shoots that are densely covered in white hairs. The flowers in common with all poplars are catkins in this species they are about 8cm long produced in early spring male and female catkins borne on separate trees.

The foliage on vigorous shoots can be almost maple like in form. Elsewhere on the tree the foliage has shallow lobes. The maple like foliage is more evident on the "suckers" produced by the roots of the parent tree. They may be encountered above ground some distance from the original source. The bark of the white poplar is pale grey and usually fissured near the base.

The grey poplar is the dominant tree in the locality around the lake. It is thought to be a hybrid between the common aspen P.tremula and the white poplar P.alba known by the scientific name of Populus x canescens. It is a vigorous tree deciduous in nature and spreads as in the previous species by means of suckers. Studies have revealed that most grey poplars produce male bearing flowers in the form of catkins which are pendulous and have red anthers. They are produced in late spring. 

The grey poplar is a handsome tree. Photograph by D.A.L.
The grey poplar is a handsome tree. Photograph by D.A.L.
In damp woodland the canopy tends to be more columnar as they have to compete for space. Photograph by D.A.L.
In damp woodland the canopy tends to be more columnar as they have to compete for space. Photograph by D.A.L.
The characteristic dark diamond shaped markings on the bark of grey poplar. Photograph by D.A.L.
The characteristic dark diamond shaped markings on the bark of grey poplar. Photograph by D.A.L.

The bark of the grey poplar is easily identified by the dark diamond shaped markings that occur on the trunk. The tee may reach the height of 30 meters or so and delights to grow in damp woods. The young shoots are covered in dense white hairs. The rounded to oval foliage are toothed and have shallow lobes. The leaf is downy on both surfaces when young becoming smooth and of a deep green colour above and nearly smooth beneath. The under side being lighter in colour.

Aspen and foliage

Young aspens such as this arise from suckers. Photograph by D.A.L.
Young aspens such as this arise from suckers. Photograph by D.A.L.
The foliage on the twig of grey poplar. Photograph by D.A.L.
The foliage on the twig of grey poplar. Photograph by D.A.L.

The aspen tree Populus tremula has the most widespread distribution of any tree in the northern hemisphere of the world. They are found throughout Europe. They are found in the Arctic circle to north Africa, north Asia, China to Japan. While the quaking aspen Populus tremuloides is the species that is widely distributed from as far north as Alaska through Canada and south through America reaching down as far as Mexico inhabiting the Rockies.

The flowers of the aspen are catkins male and female borne on different trees. Male catkins are of a grey colour while the female are greenish. The cottony plumes that help in the dispersal of the seeds are more downy than any other poplar species They hang down from the tree like large hairy caterpillars.

The foliage carried on flattened stalks allow them to rustle in the slightest breeze hence the species names of the two species under review, tremula and tremuloides. This rustling sound is distinctive to aspens. The blade of the foliage is rounded or broadly oval that have rounded leaves on the foliage and in common with other species the largest appear on the most vigorous branches

Average leaves on the left, while the one on the right is a leaf of a vigorous shoots. Photograph courtesy of
Average leaves on the left, while the one on the right is a leaf of a vigorous shoots. Photograph courtesy of

They appear bronzed when first opening becoming grey green above and paler beneath, usually smooth on both sides.

The main reproductive method of the aspen is in common with other polars is by means of "suckers", however, the production of this species and especially the north American Populus tremuloides is a fascinating subject, to botanists and scientists alike. Studies of the root system has revealed some amazing facts.

The new shoots {commonly referred to as suckers} or to be more precise Ramets, are regenerating from the roots of the parent tree. What is remarkable they stay connected to the parent tree even after they have attained the status of becoming a fully fledged tree themselves. They then produce suckers which remain attached to their arboreal mothers, that in turn is still attached to the " grandparent" tree, and so the process continues.

All the connected trees are regarded as being a single organism which scientist call clone. I have read somewhere that one such clone in Utah named as the "Pando clone" contains almost 50,000 individual trees and covers a massive area. Scientists have estimated the weight of the mass to be in excess of 6,ooo tonnes, and it has attained the title of the world's largest known living organism.

Studies further revealed that individual trees may die off but the underground clone still lives on , still producing suckers. This makes the aspen almost immortal, I find these to be awesome facts.

The popular poplars are indeed a fascinating group of trees.

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Comments 3 comments

D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 6 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

Darlene, HI, Thank you again for your kind comments. In

our climate there is green on the trunks most of the time either moss or lichens.

Kaie, your welcome and thank you again for your visit. Always good to hear from you.


Kaie Arwen profile image

Kaie Arwen 6 years ago

I have to say........... I am really learning a lot here! Thanks for the education! Kaie


Darlene Sabella profile image

Darlene Sabella 6 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

Simply awesome, this is a grand tree, could this be the Grandfather tree, um maybe not. again, I love the pictures, and the great detail description of this tree, do all trees have green on the limbs here everything is brown. Thumbs up and all the above. Your friend always as well as you fan...

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