Poplars are widely distributed throughout the northern hemisphere and are found in every province of Canada. Fast growing and prolific, they are the first trees to regenerate in areas devastated by forest fires. Regeneration occurs by means of suckers sent up from the roots and a few sprout quickly from stumps. Most people dismiss poplars as weed trees but they are actually wonders of nature. Biologists praise them for their natural ability to clean up contaminated soil and water. Poplar roots are particularly good at sucking up contaminates from soil and water and breaking down notorious chemicals into compounds that dissipate slowly over time. Once in contact with agricultural herbicides used in Canada on corn crops, the tree actually creates a less harmful by-product by replacing the harsh chemicals with something much more benign. The really good news is that neither the tree nor its leaves become a toxic waste hazard along the way.
Dr. Joel Burken, an environmental engineer at the University of Missouri-Rolla chose to study the poplar many years ago because poplars are easy to cultivate and grow remarkably fast, up to 30 feet in three to four years! With over a thousand varieties, there is at least one that is suitable for almost any climate from Canada to Mexico. Dr. Burken’s research gives governments and environmental regulators the green light to approve the use of poplar trees in reclaiming toxic lands on a large scale. He points out that planting poplars is an economical choice and much less intrusive than cleaning up a site with bulldozers and backhoes. The bonus is that reforestation happens simultaneously.
Four poplars are native to Ontario: Trembling aspen, large-tooth aspen, balsam poplar and eastern cottonwood. In addition to these native species, several introduced species and hybrids are widely planted for ornamental purposes or as windbreaks. These are the European white poplar, Lombardy poplar and Carolina poplar. Since most poplars have long leaf stalks, the wind always sets them fluttering and the leaves are always moving, especially the trembling aspen. Interestingly, the common name for this species in many languages translates as “woman’s tongue”!
The life of poplars is short and vigorous. They need a lot of light and moisture but offer bigger, longer-lived trees some gentle shade in their early years. Eventually the larger trees take over and the poplars die.
Poplar wood is fairly light, soft and weak and is used commercially mainly for pulpwood, plywood, particle board, matches and boxes. Animals love it: Beavers love the inner bark and use the poplar trunks for the main structure of their dams. Grouse eat the winter buds, snowshoe rabbits feed on the bark and twigs and moose browse among its branches year round.
Be thankful if you see poplar trees on your property. They’re just helping Mother Nature to clean the environment.