Reprinted from Newsletter 102, dated 2002 January

Rare black poplars set free to grow

John Brunsdon, Jim Nagel

A closeup of a man with short dark hair closely examining a tree. He wears a baseball cap and a high-vis jacket. There is a guard around the tree trunk, which he is manipulating.
An ATU student inspects damage to this black poplar before removing the tree guard.

Damaging tree guards have been removed from black poplars at Clyce Hole weir, on the river Brue halfway between Pomparles Bridge and Cow Bridge. The guards were necessary to protect the trees from cattle but were not checked to allow for growth. The work, by the Advanced Training Unit, took two days and enabled further pruning; trees should now recover well.

Our society made a bid to the EU’s SW Region budget to fund this project.

Black poplars (Populus nigra) are Britain’s “rarest and most splendid native timber tree.” Only 2,000 to 3,000 remain, many near the end of their lifespan; in 1993 environmental scientists predicted the species would be extinct in 20 years. Reaching 100 feet in height, it was once as common as oak, a distinctive feature of lowland river valleys. But now the scattered remaining trees do not seem to be regenerating from seed. So much suitable habitat has been drained since the 19th century (roots require dampness all year). Other threats are hybridization with non-native poplars and indiscriminate felling of “unsafe” trees.

Illustration of a poplar branch with leaves, and one of its catkins. The leaves are green and teardrop-shaped, and attach to their branch by a thin stem. The catkin is made up of dozens of very small red flowers surrounding a shared stem, together making a chili pepper shape. The catkin dangles from the branch.
A poplar tree seen at sunset against a countryside background. It is tall and has a very asymmetrical look, with branches pointing both up and down.

This is a fast-growing deciduous tree with broad green leaves a bit like ivy. Flowers appear in spring before leaves: small yellowish-green flowers in catkins; predominant colour is their red stamens.

Traditionally, black-poplar wood, slow to burn, is used for matchsticks, Dutch clogs and Camembert cheese boxes. Folklore said the water dripping from hollows “takes away warts, wheals and breakings-out of the body”. Modern herbalists use ointment from its flower buds to treat haemorrhoids, arthritis and bronchitis.

The Telegraph invited readers to help list all black poplars. This and other efforts to save it: 2018 update: link no longer valid