Dear Readers, the Lombardy poplar is one of those trees that dominates the skyline, with its thin, upright shape seemingly begging to be planted along an avenue. You can certainly pack a whole lot of Lombardy poplars into a small space! However, therein hangs a tale. In the 1960s the Lombardy Poplar (Populus nigra var ‘Italica’) became extremely popular, in particular with those planting up golf courses, or those wanting a privacy screen in their garden (these trees were in some ways the forerunners of the dreaded Leylandii spruce). However, although their shape can seem very appealing, these trees were often planted without regard for the conditions that they needed: like many members of the Saliaceae(Willow) family, their roots seek out water, and soon invade water courses and other damp areas. The tree is also short-lived and drops its branches readily: after 40-50 years they become vulnerable to high winds, sometimes crashing into their neighbours and bringing the whole lot down like dominoes. Furthermore, they seem to give no indication of their incipient demise, which makes them rather unsuited as a street tree, as you can see from the report below.
In Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield, the council are aiming to replace all 356 of the area’s mature Lombardy poplars. In case you’re wondering why, here’s the litany of problems:
Since 2009 there have been a number of incidents affecting mature Lombardy
Poplars: a tree fell across Bessemer Road in 2009 and was found to be rotten at the
base; a tree fell on a car in Howardsgate in 2009 and was also found to be rotten at
the base; a large branch fell in Parkway in 2017; a tree fell in Longmead in 2017 and
was found to be rotten at the roots; and most recently a tree crushed three cars at
Howicks Green and was found to be rotten at a height of 3 metres.
Tree officers began to combine visual and internal testing as a result of the 2009
incidents, but in all cases since then there has been no indication that the tree was
decayed or diseased.
What to do? People seemed to be addicted to the shape of the tree. The original Lombardy Poplar thrives in Mediterranean areas, where it’s hot and dry, but can’t stand our damp, drizzly climate. Fortunately for poplar lovers, there is another variety that dates back to 1884, known as Plantiere’s Poplar. This is a cross between the ‘Italica’ Lombardy poplar and another subspecies, Populus nigra ssp betulifolia, and is much better adapted to conditions in the UK and most parts of the US. It is a little less extreme in shape than the Italica variety, but at least it doesn’t fall over or clonk golfers on the head so often.
Incidentally, the tree that was used to produce Plantiere’s poplar has the common name of Black Downy Poplar (Populus nigra ssp betulifolia). It is one of the rarest trees in the UK, with probably fewer than 6000 individuals, though it features in the paintings of Constable. Richard Mabey writes about its decline in ‘Flora Britannica’ – the main culprit seems to be the gradual drainage of farmland, along with the fact that the tree is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers grow on separate trees, and so there need to be both sexes in reasonable proximity for the plant to reproduce.
What a magnificent tree the Black Downy Poplar is, and so different from the fastigiate (upright) Lombardy Poplar! In spring, the new growth glows orange in the sun. The catkins are crimson in the male trees, green in the females. As the tree ages, they
‘..have thick fissured trunks, covered with massive bosses and burrs, grow to 100 feet if uncut and often develop a pronounced lean in middle age. The branches turn downwards at their ends, often touching the ground, then sweep up again into sheaves of twigs, as if they have been caught by a gust of wind’ (Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica pg 134)
It’s hard to believe that this magnificent tree almost vanished from view altogether, but fortunately new groupings of Downy Black Poplar are being discovered all over the country, in lots of places where the drainage remains dodgy and there is enough moisture for the tree’s seeds to germinate. Long may it thrive.
Anyhow, back to the Lombardy Poplar.
The Dutch artist Marinus Boezem has taken advantage of the Lombardy Poplar’s distinctive shape by creating a living model of Reims Cathedral, known as De Groene Kathedral (The Green Cathedral) near Almere in the Netherlands. Very cleverly, he realised that the short life of the poplars would not make for an enduring work, so nearby he has created a clearing, also in the shape of the cathedral, with longer-lived beech trees growing around the edge – as the poplars decline, so the beech trees will grow to reproduce the shape again. The current ‘Cathedral’ is used for weddings, funerals and other ceremonies.
When I was researching this piece, I found constant mentions of the Lombardy Poplar being planted in graveyards – indeed, along with cypress and yew it seems to be one of the most funereal of trees. I imagine that the need to have something growing alongside the avenues that lead to the chapel or the crematorium is one reason, the desire of many cemeteries to have a kind of Italianate atmosphere another. These are also tidy trees, well behaved and modest – they don’t sprawl like oaks (or indeed black poplars), they take up little room, and they beg to be planted in regimented rows. Maybe that’s why they’re so anarchic at the end, dropping their branches and toppling over onto parked cars.
The leaves of many poplars give off a strong ‘balsam’ scent, and according to my Collins Tree Guide, the Lombardy poplar does too. I shall have to pay attention when the new growth comes next year.
And finally a poem. William Cowper (1731-1800) was one of the first ‘nature poets’ and was much admired by Wordsworth. Some of the lines from his poems have fallen into common usage – ‘God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform’, for example, and ‘I am the monarch of all I survey’. In between translating the Iliad and the Odyssey and writing a dozen popular hymns, Cowper found time to knock up this poem, which I rather like. See what you think!
The Poplar Field
William Cowper (1784)
The Poplars are fell’d, farewell to the shade
And the whispering sound of the cool colonnade,
The winds play no longer and sing in the leaves,
Nor Ouse on his bosom their image receives.
Twelve years have elapsed since I last took a view
Of my favourite field and the bank where they grew,
And now in the grass behold they are laid,
And the tree is my seat that once lent me a shade.
The black-bird has fled to another retreat
Where the hazels afford him a screen from the heat,
And the scene where his melody charm’d me before,
Resounds with his sweet-flowing ditty no more.
My fugitive years are all hasting away,
And I must e’er long lie as lowly as they,
With a turf on my breast and a stone at my head
E’er another such grove shall arise in its stead.
’Tis a sight to engage me if any thing can
To muse on the perishing pleasures of Man;
Though his life be a dream, his enjoyments, I see,
Have a Being less durable even than he.
Photo One by By László Szalai (Beyond silence) – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2609837
Photo Two by planetary_nebula, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three by By Stipo team – Flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8618799
Photo Four By RogAir – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32021359