This vast tree is a black poplar which stands on a site of special scientific interest in Staffordshire and is 270 years old. The black poplar lays claim to the title of Britain’s most endangered tree. This tree is one of the last of a scattered population of senior citizens, some up to 350 years of age, who are reaching the end of their lifespan and slipping away never to return.
It was planted in the year 1746 when England’s population was around five million, and when King George II’s infamous younger son the Duke of Cumberland defeated the Jacobites at Culloden in the last pitched battle to be fought on British soil .His elder brother ,the future George III, was thirty years away from losing the great colony of America, and in the same year a young man named Robert Clive escaped to the British held Fort George as Madras was captured by the French and joined the East India Company’s private army . The young tree would have emerged from amongst a patchwork of strips of farmland, as it was not until 1801 that a General Enclosure Act accelerated the piecemeal changes of earlier Parliamentary regulation. It would also be another seventeen years until James Watt’s steam engine would make steam power more accessible to all by building on the earlier work of Savery and Newcomen.
The black poplar is a broadleaf deciduous tree native to Britain and Europe. The name comes from the dark brown bark which often appears black and is thick with fissures and burrs that have matching lumpy twigs. The depth of these fissures and the misshapen nature of the burrs confer an appearance of distinction and wisdom that could be said to reflect the silent observations of a lifetime measured in centuries. It is one of nature’s loners; standing in boggy conditions alongside ditches and flood plains. When John Constable completed “The Hay Wain” in 1821, and this tree was seventy five years old, it was the imposing black poplar that took pride of place; soaring above the other trees amongst the painting’s arboreal background and reflecting its’ familiarity in the landscape of Lowland Britain. Black poplar timber was the backbone of rural Britain; providing cruck frames for housing, putting bottoms in wagons, clogs on feet, bowls on tables and clothes pegs on washing lines. The low flammability of black poplar also saw it floorboard the second storeys of country houses, and since the fourteenth century it had formed the scaffolding for buildings both great and small across the country.
The fallen tree is also a black poplar lying in state in the Shropshire countryside. It had dominated all around it, standing proud astride a stream and soaring to over thirty metres with a girth of almost five. Low down in the trunk the high winds had exploited the beginning of old age’s slow decline; ripping it asunder and wrenching the roots from their watery bed. The tree had been both given life and destroyed by the water it stood upon. Over the years heavy rains caused a stream to forge a new path across the field, and where once the black poplar had stood on flood plain it now bridged a fast flowing stream. Once over it looked as if the tree, lid like on a saucepan, had been forced out of the way with disastrous consequences by the boiling water below. The natural rhythms of nature sometimes appear so heartless.
Fortunately people are working hard to ensure that these magnificent trees do not pass away unnoticed and that a legacy is built for these wonderful veterans. At Wakehurst Place in West Sussex, which is managed by The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, a fledgling project by The Millennium Seed Bank has gathered pollinated seeds and managed to germinate around forty young trees. Natural England, which manages the SSSI in Staffordshire, confirmed that although the black poplar tree did not have individual protection it was covered under the SSSI and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) legislation that protected the whole of the nature reserve. Ray Hawes who is Head of Forestry at The National Trust confirmed that there is an ongoing project to identify black poplars on Trust property, and that some Trust properties have been removing commercial black poplar clones to make way for those grown from seed. The Woodland Trust is also creating an archive of the UK’s ancient, veteran and notable trees to which black poplars can be added.
Hopefully the fallen black poplar will mark a beginning and not the continuation of an end as people work to save its’ fellows, and ensure the tree that John Constable knew so well will live on for generations to come.