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Black poplar

A fast-growing tree that is commonly used for windbreaks and screening, black poplar wood has also been used for making clogs and wagons.

About Kew's black poplar trees

Kew’s black poplar collection includes:

  • Lombardy poplar, also known as Italian poplar (Populus nigra ‘Italica’). These are male trees with steeply-ascending branches, forming a narrow crown. The leaves are small with red-tinged leaf stalks.
  • Manchester poplar, also known as downy black poplar (Populus nigra var. betulifolia). These are spreading trees with a burred (swollen) trunk and sparsely hairy young leaves and stems.

Recently, some new forms of black poplar were discovered here at Kew, growing along the river. Propagating from those trees will help boost genetic diversity in the future.

Take a closer look 

  • Black poplar leaves are mid-green, turning bright yellow in the autumn.
  • The bark on a black poplar can appear to have large growths or scarring on its deep ridges - these are a normal part of the bark, and add to the character of the tree.

Tree biology

Black poplar has a broad, rounded crown and thickly knotted and deeply fissured bark. Male and female catkins are borne on separate individuals. Female catkins mature into large, fluffy seed heads that litter the ground beneath the tree, and so male trees are more commonly cultivated.

Another troublesome feature of this tree is its extreme thirst. If planted on clay, it takes up so much water the soil can shrink and move, leading to cracks in buildings. Its roots can even seek out and block drains. For this reason it is recommended to be planted at least 40 m away from buildings and drains.

Cultivation and uses

Black poplar and its cultivated forms are widely used for their fast-growing and high quality timber. One common use for black poplar wood is in the manufacture of matches, as the wood has an open texture ideal for soaking in paraffin wax. It is also strong enough not to split when the match is struck.

In the Netherlands, the wood is also used for making clogs, while willow is another popular choice for these traditional shoes. Black poplar’s well-known tolerance of pollution and its height (up to 30 m) makes it ideal for screening roads or park pathways, or more prosaically, to hide unsightly factories and railways or to shelter playing fields.

Quick facts

  • Scientific name: Populus nigra
  • Family: Salicaceae
  • Place of origin: Europe and Asia
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

Featured specimen

  • Location: Near Climbers & Creepers (Map ref. M3 on Map of Kew Gardens)
  • Date planted: 1990
  • Height: 2.3 m (in 1994)