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Manchester Poplar

Turn Moss plays a part in the future of our endangered native poplar.

The ancient Greeks told of Helios, the sun god, who drove his burning chariot and fiery horses across the sky every day.  As you can imagine, this task involved considerable risk and required great skill.  Despite his most fervent attempts to stop his son, Phaethon, from having a go, the headstrong boy racer took the reins.  The horses soon realised there was an opportunity for chaos and started to misbehave, crashing the chariot into the ground and setting fire to the earth.  Zeus had been watching what was unfolding and was seriously vexed.  With a flick of his finger, he fired a thunder bolt at Phaethon, killing him instantly and tumbling his lifeless body into the river (or the sea depending on which version of the story you read).  Now here, again, you can choose what to believe.  Phaethon’s sisters had hitched the horses up without their father’s permission so Zeus thought he would teach them a lesson too and turned them in to poplar trees, or, the girls were so distraught at their brother’s death that they turned into poplars, lining the river bank, ever to watch over their beloved brother’s body.

Euripedes had a way with words when he explains,

‘’Let me lift off, heading for the seawave
of the Adriatic headland and the water of Eridanos,
where the wretched girls, in sorrow for Phaethon,
pour forth into the seething swell
their shining amber rays of tears.’’

So now you know why poplar trees grow by water.

The black poplar is a single sex tree, requiring a male and a female for pollination and natural seed production.  Given the scarcity of females and loss of trees to poplar scab, the black poplar is now our most endangered native timber tree.  As we have ‘tidied’ up our countryside, smoothing river banks and culverting brooks and streams, we have inadvertently made the ground less favourable for seed germination.  Added to this, females produce copious clouds of cotton-like seeds which people found a nuisance and chopped the offending trees down.  At the lowest we had only seven hundred female black poplars left in the U.K.  Luckily for the poplar it is easily propagated by cuttings, effectively cloning individual trees thousands of times over; not good for the gene pool and disease resistance but better than no trees at all.  As timber, the white, shock-resistant and springy poplar wood is incredibly useful.  If you needed a pair of clogs, or a new cart wheel, a bottom for your waggon, or some matches and clothes pegs, it was the tree for you.  It is naturally fire resistant, lending itself useful for floorboards, particularly around hearths.  As it accepts pollarding well it was used to grow straight branches for arrow shafts, as discovered in bundles on the Mary Rose, having lain at the bottom of the Solent for over four hundred years.  The timber is still used today for artificial limbs.

We can’t tell whether the tree in Constable’s iconic painting ‘The Hay Wain’ is male or female.  The characteristic lean, deeply fissured bark, knobbly twigs, gnarly bosses and burrs all identify the central tree as a black poplar.  If we could see any red catkins, known as ‘Devil’s fingers’, we would know it’s a male.

By 1913 the infamous Mancunian air was so polluted most of our trees had been suffocated by soot and poisoned by sulphur dioxide.  Once strikingly emblematic of a quintessentially English rural idyll, our Manchester poplars tolerated the noxious fumes and even seemed to thrive in the filthy industrial conditions, offering a glimpse of green life and hope.  A World War later and into the Great Depression a generation of men found themselves unemployed. Manchester Parks and Cemeteries Committee collaborated with the government and introduced a project known as ‘Unemployment Relief Works’.   Men were given a bicycle, a short iron rod, and a sackful of cuttings.  Thanks to them Manchester Poplars appeared throughout our parks, towpaths, riverbanks and meadows, including our beautiful D.N.A. tested male on Ryebank fields.

The Friends of Turn Moss have planted in the damp margins of the fields around thirty Black Poplar saplings bought from selected gene stock and rooted cuttings from the Ryebank male.  Fingers crossed we should have a precious female; time will tell.  Once established our trees will provide an early source of nectar, their nooks and fissures house roosting bats, their wayward untidy knotty branches are perfect for nesting birds and their leaves are lunched on by the caterpillars of many species of moth including the dramatic Poplar Hawk, the pretty Wood Leopard and the furry-trousered Figure of Eight.

Sadly, several of our saplings have been snapped at ground level or pulled out of the ground but as we establish links with other Black Poplar projects around the U.K. we hope to both replenish our own stock and contribute cuttings to our shared national tree heritage.


Image credits: thank you to Woodland Classroom for the venerable poplar image and The National Gallery for Constable’s Hay Wain.

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