Saving Britain's Black Poplars
Female black poplar in The Pightle
The black poplar tree (Populus nigra betulifolia) is now thought to be
endangered native timber tree, and has been in decline for the past 200 years.
A thousand years ago it thrived across the lowland floodplains of the British countryside.
It was once such a common sight that it features in many classic paintings of the
British countryside, including John Constable's The Haywain. Black poplars were
commonly planted near farms and developing villages as they were considered so useful
for building and scaffolding. The shaped lower branches were especially prized for
frames, and the toughness and straightness of the young pollard branches made the
tree prized by fletchers. Indeed it is said that arrows from the recently excavated
‘Mary Rose’ originated from Huntingdonshire black poplars.
There are so few wild black poplars left in the country that it is unlikely that
they will pollinate each other, instead the large numbers of cultivated trees will
pollinate them. This means that there are hardly ever any new truly wild black poplars.
Over half of the remaining 7000 trees identified in a recent survey are situated in the Vale of
Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire.
Male black poplar in The Pightle
The ratio of male to female trees is estimated at 10:1. The species is dioecious -
that is, male and female flowers on different plants - with flowers
in catkins and pollination by wind.
Here in Huntingdonshire only 40 mature trees are known to survive, most of which are
male. Many trees are old and in decline, therefore action is needed to secure the
survival of this tree.
As part of St Neots Town Council's ‘Plant a Millennium Tree’ project both male
and female black poplars were planted in the Pightle in 2000 from ‘whipps’. Whilst
the two female trees grew quite slowly at first, all are becoming well
established and are thriving. In late 2013, twelve male and twelve female pollards
were taken; some of these will be grown locally but the majority have gone to help
the restoration of a quarry site at Bluntisham.
It is hoped that in future years these four trees will
pollinate together and that more cuttings can be taken from these trees in The Pightle to
help halt this majestic tree's decline and rejuvenate it once again.
- Derek Giles