Populus trees, more commonly known as Poplar trees, are often planted for their unusual foliage colour and some varieties feature spring catkins or fragrant foliage. Poplar trees are a tough species, steeped in history and mythology, so if you're looking for a tree that is more than just a wonderful focal feature, this is the perfect choice.
Populus is part of the Salicaceae (Willow) family and are native to North America, Europe and Asia. The 35 different species of Poplar can be divided into three main groups: the cottonwoods, the aspens, and the balsam poplars. Many varieties are grown as ornamental trees due to their healthy growth rate, interesting foliage and pretty catkins. The trees range in habit from broad to columnar.
Before the leaves emerge, flowers appear as drooping catkins in early spring, followed by small fruits which mature before the leaves are fully grown. Popular nigra Hanging Tree has particularly noteworthy long red catkins. The attractive foliage of Poplar trees appears to tremble in breezes due to the structure of their leaf stalks (petioles). The leaves display various shades of green on the upper side, whereas the underside has silver hues. These multi-toned leaves turn a warm golden yellow colour in autumn before falling in the winter.
Poplar trees have a smooth bark when young, displaying shades of white, pale green and sometimes dark grey, and often have visible lenticels, which act as a type of pore, providing an airway for the exchange of gases between the internal tissues and the atmosphere. On more mature trees, the bark usually becomes rough, developing deeper fissures and cracks.
The name Populus comes from the fact that the trees were often planted around public meeting places during Roman times. Poplar wood was once used in the making of shields. The Mona Lisa and most famous early Renaissance Italian paintings are on Poplar and it is widely used in the manufacture of paper today. Nowadays it has a wide variety of uses, being used to make chopsticks and matches to snowboards, drums and guitars! Poplar wood is used for the snowboard core because of its flexibility. It is also sold as inexpensive hardwood timber, used for pallets and cheap plywood.
It is commonly referred to as the talking, whispering and quivering tree. Some folklore say Poplar wood was used to construct Christ's cross and that the leaves of the tree quiver when they remember. It’s true that the leaves appear to tremble, even in the slightest wind, but this is because of their dense petioles (the small stalk attaching the leaf to the stem).
Hercules wore a crown of Poplar leaves when he retrieved Cerberus from Hades, and it’s now said that the top of the leaves are darker than the bottom due to Hades' smokey fumes.