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POPLAR (Lat. Populus)

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Originally appearing in Volume V22, Page 90 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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POPLAR (Lat. Populus), the name of a small group of catkin-bearing trees belonging to the order Salicaceae. The catkins of the poplars differ from those of the nearly allied willows in the presence of a rudimentary perianth, of obliquely cup-shaped form, within the toothed bracteal scales; the male flowers contain from eight to thirty stamens; the fertile bear a one-celled (nearly divided) ovary, surmounted by the deeply cleft stigmas; the two-valved capsule contains several seeds, each furnished with a long tuft of silky or cotton-like hairs. The leaves are broader than in most willows, and are generally either deltoid or ovate in shape, often cordate at the base, andfrequently with slender petioles vertically flattened. Many of the species attain a large size, and all are of very rapid growth. The poplars are almost entirely confined to the north temperate zone, but a few approach or even pass its northern limit, and they are widely distributed within that area; they show, like the willows, a partiality for moist ground and often line the river-sides in otherwise treeless districts. There are about twenty species, but the number cannot be very accurately defined—several, usually regarded as distinct, being probably merely variable forms of the same type, and the ease with which the trees inter-cross has led to the appearance of many hybrids. All yield a soft, easily-worked timber, which, though very perishable when exposed to weather, possesses sufficient durability when kept dry to give the trees a certain economic value. Many of the species are used for paper-making. Of the European kinds one of the most important and best marked forms is the white poplar or abele, P. alba, a tree of large size, with rounded spreading head and curved branches, which, like the trunk, are covered with a greyish white bark, becoming much furrowed on old stems. The leaves are ovate or nearly round in general outline, but with deeply waved, more or less lobed and indented margins and cordate base; the upper side is of a dark green tint, but the lower surface is clothed with a dense white down, which likewise covers the young shoots—giving, with the bark, a hoary aspect to the whole tree. As in all poplars, the catkins expand in early spring, long before the leaves unfold; the ovaries bear four linear stigma lobes; the capsules ripen in May. A nearly related form, which may be regarded as a sub-species, canescens, the grey poplar of the nurseryman, is distinguished from the true abele by its smaller, less deeply cut leaves, which are grey on the upper side, but not so hoary beneath as those of P. alba; the pistil has eight stigma lobes. Both trees occasionally attain a height of 90 ft. or more, but rarely continue to form sound timber beyond the first half-century of growth, though the trunk will sometimes endure for a hundred and fifty years. The wood is very white, and, from its soft and even grain, is employed by turners and toy-makers, while, being tough and little liable to split, it is also serviceable for the construction of packing cases, the lining of carts and waggons, and many similar purposes; when thoroughly seasoned it makes good flooring planks, but shrinks much in drying, weighing about 58 lb per cubic foot when green, but only 33i lb when dry. The white poplar is an ornamental tree, from its graceful though somewhat irregular growth and its dense hoary foliage; it has, however, the disadvantage of throwing up numerous suckers for some yards around the trunk. The grey and white poplars are usually multiplied by long cuttings; the growth is so rapid in a moist loamy soil that, according to Loudon, cuttings 9 ft. in length, planted beside a stream, formed in twelve years trunks ro in. in diameter. Both these allied forms occur throughout central and southern Europe, but, though now abundant in England, it is doubtful whether they are there indigenous. P. alba suffers much from the ravages of wood-eating larvae, and also from fungoid growths, especially where the branches have been removed by pruning or accident. P. nigra, the black poplar, is a tree of large growth, with dark, deeply-furrowed bark on the trunk, and ash-coloured branches; the smooth deltoid leaves, serrated regularly on the margin, are of the deep green tint which has given name to the tree; the petioles, slightly compressed, are only about half the length of the leaves. The black poplar is common in central and southern Europe and in some of the adjacent parts of Asia, but, though abundantly planted in Britain, is not there indigenous. The wood is of a yellowish tint. In former days this was the prevalent poplar in Britain, and the timber was employed for the purposes to which that of other species is applied, but has been superseded by P. monilifera and its varieties; it probably furnished the poplar wood of the Romans, which, from its lightness and soft tough grain, was in esteem for shield-making; in continental Europe it is still in some request; the bark, in Russia, is used for tanning leather, while in Kamchatka it is sometimes ground up and mixed with meal; the gum secreted by the buds was employed by the old herbalists for various medicinal purposes, but is probably nearly inert; the cotton-like down of the seed has been converted into a kind of vegetable felt, and has also been used in paper-making. A closely related form is the well-known Lombardy poplar, P. fastigiata, remarkable for its tall, cypress-like shape, caused by the nearly vertical growth of the branches. Probably a mere variety of the black poplar, its native land appears to have been Persia or some neighbouring country; it was unknown in Italy in the days of Pliny, while from remote times it has been an inhabitant of Kashmir, the Punjab, and Persia, where it is often planted along roadsides for the purpose of shade; it was probably brought from these countries to southern Europe, and derives its popular name from its abundance along the banks of the Po and other rivers of Lombardy, where it is said now to spring up naturally from seed, like the indigenous black poplar. It was introduced into France in 1749, and appears to have been grown in Germany and Britain soon after the middle of the last century, if not earlier. The Lombardy poplar is valuable chiefly as an ornamental tree, its timber being of very inferior quality; its tall, erect growth renders it useful to the landscape-gardener as a relief to the rounded forms of other trees, or in contrast to the horizontal lines of the lake or river-bank where it delights to grow. In Lombardy and France tall hedges are sometimes formed of this poplar for shelter or shade, while in the suburban parks of Britain it is serviceable as a screen for hiding buildings or other unsightly objects from view; its growth is extremely rapid, and it often attains a height of too ft. and upwards, while from 7o to 8o ft. is an ordinary size in favourable situations. P. canadensis, the " cotton-wood " of the western prairies, and its varieties are perhaps the most useful trees of the genus, often forming almost the only arborescent vegetation on the great American plains. It is a tree of rather large growth, sometimes Ioo ft. high, with rugged grey trunk 7 or 8 ft. in diameter, and with the shoots or young branches more or less angular; the glossy deltoid leaves are sharply pointed, somewhat cordate at the base, and with flattened petioles; the fertile catkins ripen about the middle of June, when their opening capsules discharge the cottony seeds which have given the tree its common western name; in New England it is sometimest called the " river poplar." The cotton-wood timber, though soft and perishable, is of value in its prairie habitats, where it is frequently the only available wood either for carpentry or fuel; it has been planted to a considerable extent in some parts of Europe, but in England a form of this species known as P. monilifera is generally preferred from its larger and more rapid growth. In this well-known variety the young shoots are but slightly angled, and the branches in the second year become round; the deltoid short-pointed leaves are usually straight or even rounded at the base, but sometimes are slightly cordate; the capsules ripen in Britain about the middle of May. This tree is of extremely rapid growth, and has been known to attain a height of 70 ft. in sixteen years; it succeeds best in deep loamy soil, but will flourish in nearly any moist but well-drained situation. The timber is much used in some rural districts for flooring, and is durable for indoor purposes when protected from dry-rot; it has, like most poplar woods, the property of resisting fire better than other timber. The native country of this form has been much disputed; but, though still known in many British nurseries as the " black Italian poplar," it is now well ascertained to be an indigenous tree in many parts of Canada and the States, and is a mere variety of P. canadensis; it seems to have been first brought to England from Canada in 1772. In America it seldom attains the large size it often acquires in England, and it is there of less rapid growth than the prevailing form of the western plains; the name of " cotton-wood " is locally given to other species. P. macrophylla or candicans, commonly known as the Ontario poplar, is remarkable for its very large heart-shaped leaves, some-times to in. long; it is found in New ngland and the milder parts of Canada, and is frequently planted in Britain; its growth is extremely rapid in moist land; the buds are covered with a balsamic secretion. The true balsam poplar, or tacamahac, P. balsamifera, abundant in most parts of Canada and the northern States, is a tree of rather large growth, often of somewhat fastigiate habit, with round shoots and oblong-ovate sharp-pointed leaves, the base never cordate, the petioles round, and the disk deep glossy green above but somewhat downy below. This tree, the " liard " of the Canadian voyageur, abounds on many of the river sides of the north-western plains; it occurs in the neighbourhood of the Great Slave Lake and along the Mackenzie River, and forms much of the drift-wood of the Arctic coast. In these northern habitats it attains a large size; the wood is very soft; the buds yield a gum-like balsam,from which the common name is derived; considered valuable as an antiscorbutic, this is said also to have diuretic properties; it was formerly imported into Europe in small quantities under the name of " baume focot," being scraped off in the spring and put into shells. This balsam gives the tree a fragrant odour when the leaves are unfolding. The tree grows well in Britain, and acquires occasionally a considerable size. Its fragrant shoots and the fine yellow green of the young leaves recommend it to the ornamental planter. It is said by Aiton to have been introduced into Britain about the end of the 17th century. P. euphratica, believed to be the weeping willow of the Scriptures, is a large tree remarkable for the variability in the shape of its leaves, which are linear in young trees and vigorous shoots, and broad and ovate on older branches. It is a native of North Africa and Western and Central Asia, including North-West India. With the date palm it is believed to have furnished the rafters for the buildings of Nineveh.
End of Article: POPLAR (Lat. Populus)
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