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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Top of the poplars

Posted on October 25 2014 at 11:16:03 0 comments

Poplars in The Meadows

Mary Green learns more about the history of the black poplar.

Don’t it always seem to go…that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

I intended this month to write a general article about trees, touching on the black poplar that forms our new sculpture in The Meadows.

I discovered I knew very little about black poplars, and that most other people have ignored them over the centuries as well.

I have found they are fascinating, so the rest of my trees will have to wait for a future month!

Gavin Boyes, Bromsgrove District Council’s tree officer, tells me that our fallen tree is a true native black poplar – not, as I first wondered, one of the many hybrid varieties. The native black poplar is in decline, possibly one of the most threatened native trees in Britain.

It grows on boggy floodplains and in wet woods. This means it has suffered from agricultural drainage of land. The remaining ones grow on stream sides, as did ours.

It’s quite uncommon round here, though there are some in Redditch. It grows fast and high, has gnarled and ridged bark, and glossy green “ace-of-spades” leaves.

It is dioecious, meaning it has male and female flowers – catkins – on separate trees. So, isolated trees will not reproduce. Some trees have compensated for this by regenerating from suckers, from the roots of fallen trees, or even from stakes stuck into the ground for fencing.

Our fallen tree in the park has been busy regenerating all over. It grew a lovely thicket of little trees back from its root base in the cricket club grounds, but this was unfortunately removed. Take a good look at my picture of this “coppice”, because it’s gone.

However, sections of the fallen trees are growing shoots, and even a bit of the “snake and apple!” I hope some of them survive, though the recent dry weather won’t have helped. They don’t like flood or drought, so are not very well placed to cope with climate change.

The poplar used to be an important timber tree, until its numbers fell away. There have since been many non-native poplars planted, it being a very popular “municipal tree” in parks and along railway lines (before the days of the wrong kind of leaves), and these often pollinate native black poplars, leading to a lot of hybrids.

Its big branches fall readily, which has unfortunately led to some being removed because of safety fears.

I asked the sculptor, Andy DeComyn, what the wood was like. He said it was extraordinarily wet, especially in the heartwood, taking a very long time to dry out. It’s this huge amount of water that helps it regenerate.

It certainly makes it interesting to work with, he said, as you can get quite wet from the spray coming off power tools. The wood is fairly soft on the whole and cuts quite well. 

He also said he had been told it was about 170 years old, which must be very old for a fast-growing tree that is not known to be long-lived and is prone to disease. Gavin confirmed this as a probable age.

However, I have heard of someone in Alvechurch who says he remembers it being planted, so this could be an overestimate!

Black poplar wood was once widely used for beams and floorboards, including places like oast houses which had fires, and in farm carts and clogs, even artificial limbs, being very shockproof and fire-resistant. It was also used where it was likely to get wet, being able to absorb water.

The branches often grow into a perfect V shape, which was sometimes used as a huge piece to form the cruck timber of a house. I wonder if any of our old houses have black poplar wood in them. Nowadays, quick-growing poplar is used for biomass.

Though rather neglected over the years, it is a magnificent tree, growing to a great height. It is this tree that appears on the background of many of Constable’s paintings – the low-lying damp Sussex/Essex landscape being perfect for them. It’s quite possible the hay wain was made from one.

It’s an archetypal English tree, just like the oak. Like the oak, it also appears sometimes as a “boundary tree” marking parishes or other land boundaries. And in one place in Shropshire, the Oak Apple day ceremony of dressing trees has been transferred to another tree, a black poplar.

Perhaps it was the poor man’s oak tree? There are two interpretations of the name “poplar”: it means “tree of the people” (Latin) or “shaking tree” (Greek).

All poplars are commonly known as shivering or shaking trees because their leaves shiver and rattle in the wind. Some people believed that Christ’s cross was made of black poplar, and that’s why it shakes ever afterwards.

The red male catkins that appear spectacularly in spring are sometimes called the devil’s fingers, and the tree was thought unlucky. The bark, leaves and buds were used medicinally for fevers and agues, as the shaking would cure these, according to the “doctrine of signatures”. 

There is an old rhyme about this:

When Christ our Lord was on the cross
Then didst thou sadly shiver and toss
My aches and pains thou now must take
Instead of me I bid thee shake.

However, as a relative of the willow they do contain salicylates – natural aspirin – so they would have had real curative effect. An ointment from the buds has been used for centuries against inflammation.

In classical mythology the tree was associated with Hecate, the goddess of death and the underworld (and later of witches). It is ruled by Saturn and through it we can contact our young, middle-aged and old selves, outside the limits of time. Unsurprisingly as it is full of water, it is also associated with the moon.

It was among other plants used in the “flying ointment” which enabled witches to fly! It is especially powerful in autumn, when we are nearest the “other world” at Samhain/ Halloween.

Although the tree is wind-pollinated, its pollen is very useful to bees and other insects as an early source of pollen, and the seeds are eaten by birds. The male catkins are red and the females become cottony – the tree is a relative of the American cottonwood tree.

The leaves were once used as a source of fodder for animals. On the Tudor ship Mary Rose, some arrows made of black poplar were found.

Arrows were more usually made of yew, the tree of death and rebirth in our local churchyards. Perhaps black poplar was the poor man’s yew as well!

It’s very fitting that our new sculpture in the park is a black poplar, the tree so often ignored but capable of regeneration, and now brought back to life and to everyone’s notice.

Over the far side of the park are three other black poplars of some kind, with two of the more identifiable upright Lombardy poplars. I’ve asked Gavin to let me know if they are true natives or hybrids. Perhaps we’ll notice them more now – I certainly will. I will be looking out for the spring catkins.

The “serpent and apple” form our black poplar has now taken reminds us of the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden. There stood the Tree of Knowledge, which is echoed in other mythologies by the “tree of life” which carries the power and wisdom of creation.

In some traditions, this is an ash tree, another under-rated species now threatened with disease. Both serpents and trees are associated with ancient wisdom. The tree of life is often said to be the same tree as the cross, so could be the black poplar in some beliefs.

Trees have a powerful influence over our history and over us now. Many people talk about finding peace and solace in woodland, and having an affinity with trees.

There also seem, strangely enough, to be people who hate or fear trees – there are many examples in literature. Perhaps we retain a memory of our early days when the planet was largely forested, and we had to live with trees as our close companions.

We used them for shelter, to make houses, furniture, ships and utensils, to burn for fuel and for charcoal, to gather nuts and berries from, to cure our ills, to graze our animals around and on, and to symbolise the passing of the year and the celebration of our religions.

But they also harboured wolves and bears, and were dangerous to people who didn’t live in harmony with them.

Now we know that the health of the planet is threatened if we don’t have natural woodland, so every lost tree affects all of us, unless it is replaced with new ones.

The Meadows looked wonderful when I visited on a Sunday recently: youth football on the renewed pitch, dads and kids collecting conkers, dog walkers and statue-visitors, and all against the background of magnificent trees.

This place is very special for our village, and thank you to all who look after it.

I would like to thank Gavin Boyes, tree officer, Andy DeComyn, sculptor, and Anne Press, tree botanist, for helping me understand the black poplar.

Serpent and apple

The tree fell, and now we can’t believe
It didn’t fall exactly in that shape
It made a serpent, and it made an apple
The fruit of the tree of knowledge
The snake of forbidden wisdom
Its thick bark was already scaly
The head held a pattern within the grain

An angel fell from heaven at Michaelmas
Become a serpent, angel of hell
All that wisdom fell with him
And we fell with that wisdom into humanity
Eating from the tree of life
To become mortal, each to die
But like a forest, together to live forever

Our snake was made from human strength
And human wisdom. People hauled together
And it made a curve. An imagination
Found the snake and apple in it
A hand carved it, but many hands
Made it whole, as the shaking tree
Once healed our frets and fevers.

Meanwhile through the spring and summer
The roots grew a little coppice
Until torn up, not wanted. But quietly
The fallen pieces sprouted
Glossy green hearts. It won’t die
It is always standing there on the boundary
Dreaming itself into a forest

And the snake lies among us
Stroked and sat on, rough and smooth
Holding the water of time
Blessing for birth and death
Reminding us of the tree of life
Which holds all our futures in it
And which we must not let fall


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