The Dark Popular

Richard Mabey for Reading the Land –  March 2022

I saw it one late March afternoon, the Vale of Aylesbury glowing like a premature autumn. There was broken sunshine, and against the slate grey cloud the shiny leaf-buds of Britain’s largest population of black poplars seemed encased in amber. They tricked out every dyke and lane and rivulet, mapping the contours of this ancient flood plain.

I’d known them close-to since I was a boy, a tribe of tilted, serpentine, quirky trees whose origins and agendas were mysterious to me. Now I’d glimpsed them as a whole landscape too, and understood that the land has two faces. And Janus-like they look back to the past and forward to the future: the bold scenic panoramas which reflect our human presence, and the inner labyrinths of vegetation’s own lifeways.

For the past two centuries the native black poplar, Populus nigra var betulifolia, has been the invisible one amongst Britain’s timber trees, obscured by its cultivated cousins and its intense localness.

“It was a ghost from a once wetter and wilder landscape, matted with riverine forests.”

 

When the botanist Edgar Milne-Redhead re-discovered the tree in the mid-1970s, he thought there were less than a thousand surviving. But he made us see the tree again – its leaning trunk, often forked, patinated with fissures and burrs; its see-saw branches turned towards the ground then sweeping up again; the bunches of shiny, tremulous, beech-shaped leaves  -  and it stirred some half-memory.

“This is the tree in the backdrop of many of John Constable’s paintings. It’s there in his best-known landscape, The Hay-Wain, and its light wood may well have planked the wagon itself.”

Gradually a whole social history and a much wider presence began to emerge. A large population was found in the industrial north-west, mercifully tolerant of air pollution. A cat had four kittens in a hollow tree in Suffolk. On the Welsh Marches there proved to be epic landmark trees, and barns which carried natural V-shaped crucks of its fire-resistant wood. And those of us who lived near the Aylesbury Vale began to believe that Milne-Redhead’s estimate of the UK population was short by several thousand.

I did my own small survey in the mid-1990s, walking every lane and footpath in a 2 kilometre square. I found 270 trees in every conceivable form: some uncut maidens, but mostly pollards, stubby, tall, even two-storey pollards where the wood was lopped again 3 metres higher. (The Vale’s population is now known to be nearly 4,000 trees, half the UK total.) They were cut for cattle fodder and to make hurdles for the Chiltern sheep flocks. What astonished me were the ways the trees were reproducing themselves. I saw new stems shooting from fallen trunks, from windthrown branches, from the tips of twigs rooted in the mud, even out of the undersides of upturned root-plates.

“I loved the sense of a great tangle of self-recycling wood.”

All that was missing was a natural seedling, and this absence brings into sharp contrast the poplar’s own way of being and its role in the landscape. Black poplars are dioecious: they carry female and male catkins on separate trees. In the wild the wind-pollinated seeds have to fall on open ground still damp in June.

This situation would have been common enough centuries ago, but as wholescale land drainage advanced it became more and more scarce.  Poplars were increasingly propagated by cuttings, almost wholly taken from male trees because of a distaste for the thick fluff that’s blown from the female catkins. As a consequence almost the entire UK population belongs to a few dozen clones of genetically identical individuals, and there are only a handful of sites where seedlings regularly appear.

Restoring the black poplar to its ancestral status is now well under way, chiefly by taking cuttings from existing trees. This is one course but it runs the risk of driving the UK population into a vulnerable genetic dead-end. Nor are the cuttings always planted out in the kind of watery landscape for which they’ve evolved.

It’s easy to become over purist here – black poplars have another honourable past as village green trees – but how good it would be if the tree could contribute to restored flood-plain landscapes, with male and female trees allowed to seed and regenerate in all their protean ways.

Language is a reliable indicator of how matters stand in public consciousness, and I find it hugely encouraging that in Kent the tree has a new nickname. Either from a mishearing or a witty insight into how its cryptic past combines with its spectacular public display, it’s been tagged ‘the Dark Popular’.

© Richard Mabey 2022.