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The hybrid poplar

GAYS MILLS - I’ve been thinking about trees lately. Soon the woods will come out of dormancy, trees will leaf out, and give us a whole new and welcome look. The maple syrup producers are busy with this year’s production, as spring marches on into a radically different and changed world. But the trees abide, that’s one thing we can count on regardless of the new virus and financial turmoil of 2020. 

A sincere ‘Thank You’ to Cindy Kohles, the Gays Mills Village Forester. With Cindy’s assistance, I have arranged to have two troublesome yard trees removed and replaced as part of a DNR Urban Forestry Grant. One tree, a large spruce, died after the house near it was raised during flood-proofing. Filling five or six feet of soil around the base of the tree–slowly but surely killed it off. Another tree, a Siberian elm, is hugely mature, in decline, and poses a real threat to our house and must come down. Neither of these trees are ones that I feel confident to tackle, so it’s nice to be able to call in the experts for the jobs. 

My tree thoughts branch off now to a few years ago when Dick Gainor, the former manager of Frank Orchards, convinced me that hybrid poplars were trees with a lot of potential.  Poplars are all relatives of willows.  A hybrid is a cross between 2 or more closely related species. Hybrid Poplars are produced by crossing other willow relatives: cottonwood, aspen,  European and North American poplars. Dick was a real evangelist about these interesting trees and I learned a lot from him about them.

To wit, Hybrid poplars are a very fast growing tree and one of the fastest growing plants on earth, right up there with bamboo and kudzu. This makes them a good choice for an impatient forester. They will grow 6 to 10 feet a year!  And here’s a big plus: you plant a hybrid poplar by simply putting a half-inch thick cutting from a hybrid poplar into the ground. 

Wood from the poplar is not very high on the firewood chart for actual burning value, BUT, due to their rapid growth, they produce more BTUs (British Thermal Units) per acre than any other species. I’ve read that a 1-acre woodlot with poplars planted in rows, would supply heat, perpetually, for an average house. Poplars can be “coppiced“, that means they grow back from the stump after being harvested. The 2nd growth is said to be faster than the first growth since a strong root system is already established. 

Besides their use as firewood, poplars can be used as pulpwood in paper production and lumber in some limited applications such as making oriented strand boards. There has been some work done researching poplars as a source for making cellulosic ethanol, a promising renewable bio-fuel.  

With their fast growth, poplars look good from an environmental standpoint, capturing carbon and holding it in place.  They do well at preventing erosion, forming windbreaks, and providing quick shade for pastured animals. Poplars are also “phytoremediators“, meaning that they have the ability to take up harmful waste products and lock them away in their stems.

As you can see, there are many things about Hybrid Poplars to recommend them.  But they are not for everyone.  They are a short-lived tree for one thing. Their roots are aggressive and can cause problems for septic lines and sidewalks.  They are better used in open areas away from buildings.  A standard poplar tree makes a much better tree for a yard situation.