Poplar, black (Populus nigra)
Black poplar is a broadleaf deciduous tree native to the UK and Europe.
Common name: black poplar
Scientific name: Populus nigra
UK provenance: native
Interesting fact: according to the Forestry Commission, black poplar is the most endangered native timber tree in Britain.
What does black poplar look like?
Overview: mature trees grow to 30m and can live for 200 years. The bark is dark brown but often appears black, and is thick with numerous fissures and burrs. Twigs are lumpy and brown in colour.
Leaves: are shiny, green and heart-shaped, with long tips and a mild scent of balsam. Young leaves are covered in fine, tiny hairs, which they shed by autumn.
Flowers: black 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 leaves have a faint scent of balsam.
Could be confused with: the triangular leaves distinguish it from the white poplar (Populus alba) which has rounded leaves.
Identified in winter by: poplar twigs, especially older ones are very knobbly. Buds spiral round the twig and are closely pressed to the twig.
Where to find black poplar
A declining species, it is rarely found and grows in isolation. Black poplar is most prevalent in Shropshire, Cheshire, Somerset and East Anglia. It grows best in boggy conditions, alongside ditches and on floodplains.
Value to wildlife
Black poplar is the foodplant for the caterpillars of many moths, including the hornet, wood leopard, poplar hawk and figure of eighty. 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
According to Greek mythology, the black poplar was created after Phaeton’s fatal attempt to drive Apollo’s chariot. Phaeton's sisters made such a fuss mourning his death that the gods changed them into black poplars. It is also said that fallen red male catkins are Devil's fingers, and bring bad luck if picked up.
How we use black poplar
Black poplar wood is fine textured, soft and almost white in colour. It resistant to shock, and traditional uses therefore included carts, floorboards and clogs. It was also used to make matches. Today, black poplar timber is used to make artificial limbs, wine cases, pallets, shelving and toys.
There are so few wild black poplars left it is unlikely they will pollinate each other. Instead, the large numbers of cultivated trees pollinate them resulting in no regeneration of true wild black poplars. In addition, poplar species are prone to a variety of fungal diseases including cankers, leaf rusts and poplar scab.