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Poplar Fluff time!

  • Poplar Fluff time!

Have you been wondering why your street or garden is suddenly covered in white fluff?

It means that there is probably a Poplar tree or two in the nearby area, and this is the time of year when they generate huge amounts of seed.

Being a wind-germinated plant (as opposed to one germinated by flying insects) they don't bother with showy flowers, so you might not even be aware that they have flowers at all - and their seeds, like those of the common Dandelion, have a wispy parachute of fine fibres, which help them to float on the wind and spread the seed away from the parent plant. This is why many of the Poplars - particularly the Black Poplar, Populus nigra - are known in America as Cottonwood trees.

Luckily for us, most Poplars are dioecious, which means that one tree will have male flowers, and another will have female flowers: so not all Poplars produce seed, and if a tree with “female” flowers is not sufficiently close to a tree with “male” flowers to be pollinated, it won't produce seed. In some parts of America it is actually forbidden to plant female Poplars, presumably to stop the country being over-run with them: so they can plant male trees, and enjoy the benefits of the tree, without having to weed out millions of Poplar seedlings.

In case you are now wondering why we are not also surrounded by Poplar thickets, the seeds are so tiny that they don't contain much of a food reserve, and they rely on landing in moist swampy soil, where they can germinate immediately. In the UK, we don't have many swampy areas - but where we do, you can probably find large stands of Poplar!

If you want to locate the trees which are dropping this fluff all over your garden, look upwards for large, stately trees whose leaves appear to twinkle on the branches. Poplar leaves have long petioles (botany-speak for “stalk”) which are flattened, not round: so the leaves can wobble easily, which gives the twinkling effect. The most dramatic of these is the Aspen, Popular tremula, whose leaves flutter in the slightest breeze...but they all do it, and if you take hold of a leaf, you can feel for yourself how flattened the petiole is.

Another tree which produces large amounts of fluffy seed is the Willow, so it's no surprise to learn that both Poplar and Willow are in the same botanical family, Salicaceae. And both of them are known to be Hay Fever triggers, so if you suffer from allergies, and you see what looks like a thin layer of snow on the street in the middle of June: try to stay away from it!

Comments (4)

  1. Grower

    Jeremy Wright

    Fascinating post Rachel. Did you know the Mona Lisa was painted on poplar wood? It's also commonly used for musical instruments.

    One of the rarest trees is the native black poplar, Populus nigra betulifolia. Back in the 1970s only 1,000 or so standard trees remained in the British countryside. it's a large, beautiful fast-growing tree to 80 feet with a broad head and a nice trunk - often leaning, deeply fissured and with large bosses. Its natural habitat is lowland river banks which have been progressively cleared - hence the scarcity.

    Chew Valley Trees has them. If I can find a spot with enough space (tall order I think!) I might get one. They're a bit touchy apparently about being crowded by other trees.

  2. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Hi Jeremy (waves enthusiastically) and no, I didn't know that the Mona Lisa was painted on Poplar wood! I do know that it's described as a "utility wood" because it is relatively cheap - being a fast-growing tree - and it can be used for all sorts of things, including "pallets, paper and plywood" which seems to be vaguely insulting, doesn't it!

    I do know, from my work with Tree ID, that all Poplars hybridise freely, and that most of what we call "Black" poplars are actually Hybrid Black Poplar: as you point out, the true Black Poplar is now rather rare. But it's a good tree to learn about, as they are planted all over the country, and all you have to do is learn to recognise White Poplar (the leaves are shaped like Maple leaves, and are felty white underneath) and Aspen (leaves are round and look as though they've been cut out with a cookie cutter, neat serrated edges), then anything else you find with twinkling, triangular-ish leaves and flattened petioles can be called Hybrid Black Poplar, and no-one will be able to contradict you!

  3. Grower

    Jeremy Wright

    Ha - now I'll know. Thanks Rachel.

    I then found myself asking and answering the following question: Why are there so many Lombardy poplars in lowland France? Remember all those long, charming tree-lined roads on your French holidays?

    Two answers: 1. It is apparently traditional in France for fathers to plant a grove of poplars when they have a baby daughter. When the girl grows up and gets married, they are then supposed to chop them down to help pay for the wedding. And 2. (the main reason I suspect) Poplars don't mind sitting with their roots in water, so they are good trees for stabilising the soil at the sides of roads ... and don't they look mighty fine!

    • Poplar Fluff time!
  4. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    I've never actually had a holiday in France, but I watch le Tour every year, so yes, I know what you mean - and no, I did not know about that tradition: what a lovely idea! Planting trees as a cash crop for the dowery! Mind you, it wouldn't work over here, as not many proud parents have enough room to plant a hundred or so large trees....

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