This week we are learning about poplar; scientifically known as the Populus genus. This hardwood is native to most of the Northern Hemisphere and doesn’t really receive a lot of praise as a fine building material. However, it is used for a number of differing applications. Poplar trees can grow from anywhere between 49-164 feet tall with trunks reaching diameters of up to 8 feet. Young trees are recognizable for their smooth, white to greenish or dark grey bark which in some species develops rough deep fissures through out the aging process. The leaves of poplar often turn a bright gold to yellow during autumn and the spiral shape of their leaves create a twinkling appearance in the breeze making this tree very aesthetic at the change of the season before the leaves fall. Poplar species of the cottonwood variety play an important roll in wetland environments while the aspen species of the tree are some of the most important boreal (subartic climate) broadleaf trees. This being the ecosystem scientists believe to be most responsible for positively interacting with our atmosphere.
Having the advantage of growing very big very rapidly, poplars are a “popular” choice for ornamental plantings. It should be noted however that the root systems of these trees, like willows, grow vigorously and can be very invasive since they are capable of stretching up to 130 feet from center. It is for this reason that care should be taken to consider foundations and pipe systems when planting.
As stated above, poplar is not readily associated with other high quality building materials but its flexibility and close grain give it a great balance of desirable characteristics. Since antiquity poplar has been valued as good shield wood. Most notably used by the Greeks and Etruscans. Its use for shield construction remained “popular” up through the middle ages and was renowned for a durability similar to that of oak while providing a significant reduction in weight.
The most common use for poplar in modern times is to produce pulp wood. It serves well for the manufacturing of paper and has recently become a species of interest for use as an energy crop to produce biomass/bio-fuel. Along with its fast growth cycle poplar produces a high energy in to energy out ratio and large carbon reduction potential. It is also sold as hardwood timber used for pallets and inexpensive plywood. It is grown on a large commercial scale in India for this reason.
If you have ever noticed the similarity between matches and chopsticks it is because they both are commonly made of poplar. Another interesting and sensible common use of poplar is in the fabrication of cores for snowboards. Its low weight and high flexibility make it ideal for this. For those interested in primitive survival skills it should also be noted that poplar works great as a hearth for a bow drill. Along with shield fabrication poplar was commonly used for tanning leather across Europe. The bark’s high tannic acid content make it highly suitable for this purpose. Poplar was also the preferred wood of choice for panel paintings during the renaissance. The Mona Lisa and many other famous early works of the period were done on poplar. It’s white to yellowish color and its capability of accepting paint/finish well make it great for painting applications.
While poplar is not considered to be a top of the line hardwood it is pretty awesome. It makes a great shield, the Mona Lisa is painted on it, chopsticks and snowboards are made from it, and it plays a major role in cleaning the air across all of earth. Not the best for crafting fine furniture but impressive in its uses nonetheless.