All About the Populus Genus

Pretty poplars, aspens, and cottonwoods are much more than decorative additions to the landscape, though their beauty is famous.

| Winter 2019

poplar-changing-color 
 Photo by Adobe Stock/kellyvandellen

Twinkling, fluttering, marching, quaking, trembling — these are all words typically used to capture the unique way that poplars, aspens, and cottonwoods stand out in the landscape. All three of these trees are members of the Populus, or poplar, genus, which contains just 35 known species. The word “Populus” is said to come from the Latin “populus arbori,” meaning “the people’s tree.” Another source suggests that the name arises from the Romans planting these trees anywhere people were likely to meet. Trees in the genus provide shelter and food for a wide variety of animal and insect life, and, in death, they’re home to a very specific mushroom species.

Here in Ohio, it’s hard to go anywhere without finding cottonwoods (Populus deltoides), perhaps the most common species in the U.S. Cottonwoods are so much a part of the landscape that they’re almost viewed as weeds. In many communities around the country, members of the Populus genus are considered noxious and are illegal to plant. However, it seems that cottonwoods and their cousins have other ideas, because human efforts don’t appear to be slowing their spread down at all.

Too Much of a Good Thing

There are a few reasons that people tend to look unfavorably at these trees. The first is that not only are they wind-pollinated, but they also use the wind to disperse their seeds. Seed launch day is a big deal to the Populus trees. Their seeds resemble snow in June in some parts of the country. In their travels, the fluffy, white-parachute-clad seeds clog up air conditioners, pool filters, ponds, and more. During this time, many folks see an increase in their allergy symptoms, making the trees an obvious scapegoat. However, it’s more likely that seasonal allergies are triggered by less-obvious grasses blooming at the same time that Populus seeds are falling.



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Photo by Adobe Stock/MarekPhotoDesign.com

Another big reason Populus trees are despised is actually one of their strengths. Poplars and cottonwoods are a particularly thirsty bunch. This means that around human habitation, they can seek out drains and septic fields, heave up sidewalks, and create all sorts of other havoc if they’re planted too close to homes. They’re well-adapted to soils where other trees would struggle because of standing water. I planted my cottonwoods, along with maples and walnuts, in an area of our property that was always boggy. For the first few years, the maples were attacked with a variety of fungal infections and displayed pimply leaves covered in red, bumpy growths. While the maples floundered, the cottonwoods stood proud and grew quickly, with their glossy leaves held high. Populus trees produce antifungal phytochemicals that allow them to thrive in wet locations. While they grew, they were also drinking up the water in the area, spreading their roots to make use of the high water table. Over time, this root network began to change the soil quality, and the area dried quickly, allowing the other trees to get a foothold and grow as well. That once-barren area of my property is now a beautiful, young wood. It’s a physical reminder of how useful these trees can be in recovering ecosystems. In fact, they’re well-known for their utility in bioremediation.






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