Populus is a genus of 25–30 species of deciduous flowering plants in the family Salicaceae, native to most of the Northern Hemisphere. English names variously applied to different species include poplar, aspen, and cottonwood.
The western balsam poplar was the first tree whose full DNA code had been determined by DNA sequencing, in 2006.
DescriptionThe genus has a large genetic diversity, and can grow from tall, with trunks up to in diameter.
The bark on young trees is smooth, white to greenish or dark grey, and often has conspicuous lenticels; on old trees, it remains smooth in some species, but becomes rough and deeply fissured in others. The shoots are stout, with the terminal bud present. The leaves are spirally arranged, and vary in shape from triangular to circular or lobed, and with a long petiole; in species in the sections Populus and Aigeiros, the petioles are laterally flattened, so that breezes easily cause the leaves to wobble back and forth, giving the whole tree a "twinkling" appearance in a breeze. Leaf size is very variable even on a single tree, typically with small leaves on side shoots, and very large leaves on strong-growing lead shoots. The leaves often turn bright gold to yellow before they fall during autumn.
The flowers are mostly dioecious and appear in early spring before the leaves. They are borne in long, drooping, sessile or pedunculate catkins produced from buds formed in the axils of the leaves of the previous year. The flowers are each seated in a cup-shaped disk which is borne on the base of a scale which is itself attached to the rachis of the catkin. The scales are obovate, lobed, and fringed, membranous, hairy or smooth, and usually caducous. The male flowers are without calyx or corolla, and comprise a group of four to 60 stamens inserted on a disk; filaments are short and pale yellow; anthers are oblong, purple or red, introrse, and two-celled; the cells open longitudinally. The female flower also has no calyx or corolla, and comprises a single-celled ovary seated in a cup-shaped disk. The style is short, with two to four stigmata, variously lobed, and numerous ovules. Pollination is by wind, with the female catkins lengthening considerably between pollination and maturity. The fruit is a two- to four-valved dehiscent capsule, green to reddish-brown, mature in midsummer, containing numerous minute light brown seeds surrounded by tufts of long, soft, white hairs which aid wind dispersal.
EcologyPoplars of the cottonwood section are often wetlands or riparian trees. The aspens are among the most important boreal broadleaf trees.
Poplars and aspens are important food plants for the larvae of a large number of Lepidoptera species. Pleurotus populinus, the aspen oyster mushroom, is found exclusively on dead wood of Populus trees in North America.
Several species of Populus in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe have experienced heavy dieback; this is thought in part to be due to Sesia apiformis which bores into the trunk of the tree during its larval stage.
ClassificationThe genus Populus has traditionally been divided into six sections on the basis of leaf and flower characters; this classification is followed below. Recent genetic studies have largely supported this, confirming some previously suspected reticulate evolution due to past hybridisation and introgression events between the groups. Some species had differing relationships indicated by their nuclear DNA and chloroplast DNA sequences, a clear indication of likely hybrid origin. Hybridisation continues to be common in the genus, with several hybrids between species in different sections known.
- Populus section Populus – aspens and white poplar
- * Populus adenopoda – Chinese aspen
- * Populus alba – white poplar
- ** Populus × canescens – grey poplar
- * Populus davidiana – Korean aspen
- * Populus grandidentata – bigtooth aspen
- * Populus sieboldii – Japanese aspen
- * Populus tremula – aspen, common aspen, Eurasian aspen, European aspen, quaking aspen
- * Populus tremuloides – quaking aspen or trembling aspen
- Populus section Aigeiros – black poplars, some of the cottonwoods
- * Populus deltoides – eastern cottonwood
- * Populus fremontii – Fremont cottonwood
- * Populus nigra – black poplar, placed here by nuclear DNA; cpDNA places it in sect. Populus
- ** Populus × canadensis – hybrid black poplar
- ** Populus × inopina – hybrid black poplar
CultivationMany poplars are grown as ornamental trees, with numerous cultivars used. They have the advantage of growing to a very large size at a rapid pace. Almost all poplars take root readily from cuttings or where broken branches lie on the ground.
Trees with fastigiate branching are particularly popular, and are widely grown across Europe and southwest Asia. However, like willows, poplars have very vigorous and invasive root systems stretching up to from the trees; planting close to houses or ceramic water pipes may result in damaged foundations and cracked walls and pipes due to their search for moisture.
A simple, reproducible, high-frequency micropropagation protocol in eastern cottonwood Populus deltoides has been reported by Yadav et al. 2009.
IndiaIn India, the poplar is grown commercially by farmers, mainly in the Punjab region. Common poplar varieties are:
Most commonly used to make plywood, Yamuna Nagar in Haryana state has a large plywood industry reliant upon poplar. It is graded according to sizes known as "over", "under", and "sokta".
UsesAlthough the wood from Populus is known as poplar wood, a common high-quality hardwood "poplar" with a greenish colour is actually from an unrelated genus Liriodendron. Populus wood is a lighter, more porous material.
Its flexibility and close grain make it suitable for a number of applications, similar to those for willow. The Greeks and Etruscans made shields of poplar, and Pliny the Elder also recommended poplar for this purpose. Poplar continued to be used for shield construction through the Middle Ages and was renowned for a durability similar to that of oak, but at a substantial reduction in weight.
- In many areas, fast-growing hybrid poplars are grown on plantations for pulpwood
- Poplar is widely used for the manufacture of paper.
- It is also sold as inexpensive hardwood timber, used for pallets and cheap plywood; more specialised uses include matchboxes and the boxes in which Camembert cheese is sold.
- Poplar wood is also widely used in the snowboard industry for the snowboard core, because it has exceptional flexibility, and is sometimes used in the bodies of electric guitars and drums.
- Poplar wood, particularly when seasoned, makes a good hearth for a bow drill.
- Due to its high tannic acid content, the bark has been used in Europe for tanning leather.
- Poplar wood can be used to produce chopsticks or wooden shoes.
- Baking moulds from peeled poplar may be used in the freezer, oven, or microwave oven.
In the United Kingdom, poplar is typically grown in a short rotation coppice system for two to five years, then harvested and burned - the yield of some varieties can be as high as 12 oven-dry tonnes per hectare every year.
In warmer regions like Italy this crop can procuce up to 13.8, 16.4 oven-dry tonnes of biomass per hectare every year for biannual and triennial cutting cycles also showing a positive energy balance and a high energy efficiency.
Fuelis another option for using poplar as bioenergy supply. In the United States, scientists studied converting short rotation coppice poplar into sugars for biofuel production.
Considering the relative cheap price, the process of making biofuel from SRC can be economic feasible, although the conversion yield from short rotation coppice were lower than regular mature wood. Besides biochemical conversion, thermochemical conversion was also studied for making biofuel from short rotation coppice poplar and was found to have higher energy recovery than that from bioconversion.
Art and literaturePoplar was the most common wood used in Italy for panel paintings; the Mona Lisa and most famous early renaissance Italian paintings are on poplar. The wood is generally white, often with a slightly yellowish colour.
Some stringed instruments are made with one-piece poplar backs; violas made in this fashion are said to have a particularly resonant tone. Similarly, though typically it is considered to have a less attractive grain than the traditional sitka spruce, poplar is beginning to be targeted by some harp luthiers as a sustainable and even superior alternative for their sound boards: in these cases another hardwood veneer is sometimes applied to the resonant poplar base both for cosmetic reasons, and supposedly to fine-tune the acoustic properties.
Two notable poems in English lament the cutting down of poplars, William Cowper's "The Poplar Field" and Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Binsey Poplars felled 1879".
In Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit, she sings "Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…".
Poplars in Ukrainian folklore symbolise beauty or loneliness of a woman in love.
The Odd Poplars Alley, in Iași, Romania, is one of the spots where Mihai Eminescu sought inspiration in his works. In 1973, the 15 white poplars still left were declared natural monuments.