Poplar, white (Populus alba)

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White poplar is a deciduous broadleaf tree native to central and southern Europe, though it is naturalised in the UK.

Common name: white poplar

Scientific name: Populus alba
Family: Salicaceae

UK provenance: non-native

Interesting fact: white poplar was widely thought to be non-native, however, references to 'abel' trees in historic documents indicate it has been here much longer than previously thought, and so it could be native.

What does white poplar look like?

Overview: White poplar can grow to 20m. It is the whitest tree in the landscape, and from a distance it can appear to be covered in snow. The bark is pale grey with lines of black diamond-shaped pores, called lenticels. Twigs are white, and young twigs have a covering of dense white hair that last until their second year. 

Leaves: dark green-grey and white-ish on the underside, thanks to a bright white coating of woolly hair. Most leaves have five lobes and have irregular teeth around the edge.

Flowers: white poplar is dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are found on separate trees. Flowers are catkins (male catkins are red and female catkins are yellow-green), and are pollinated by wind. 

Fruits: once fertilised, female catkins develop into fluffy cotton-like seeds, which fall in late summer.

Look out for: the underside of the leaves is paler than the upper side. The stems of the leaves are also distinctly flattened.

Could be confused with: the twigs can be confused with those of black poplar (Populus nigra), the leaves, however, are distinctly different. The buds of white poplar are also hairy unlike other poplar buds.

Identified in winter by: poplar twigs especially older ones are very knobbly. Buds spiral around, and are closely pressed to the twig.

Where to find white poplar

Native to Morocco and the Iberian Peninsula, white poplar grows in moist conditions, often by watersides.

Value to wildlife

A variety of moth caterpillars feed on the foliage, including the puss moth, pink-barred sallow, poplar grey, yellow-line quaker, dingy shears and sallow kitten. The catkins provide an early source of pollen and nectar for bees and other insects, and the seeds are eaten by birds.

Mythology and symbolism

In ancient Greek mythology the white poplar was consecrated to Hercules after he destroyed Cacus in a cavern next to the Aventine Hill, which was covered with white poplars. In his moment of triumph he bound his brows with a white poplar branch as a token of his victory. People offering sacrifices to Hercules were always crowned with branches of white poplar, and all who had conquered their enemies in battle wore white poplar garlands.

How we use white poplar

Trees are widely planted as a wind break as they produce suckers from the base. These young suckers give good ground cover, and grow into a dense thicket of trees.

Threats

Poplar species can be prone to a variety of fungal diseases, including cankers, leaf rusts and poplar scab.

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