For me, it is the trees that give the landscape of lowland England its character, not just providing a backdrop to her vistas but also delivering a real sense of place. The character of some of these trees, such as that of the oak, have been enshrined in our literary tradition and used to say something about our own English character. Others, however, have been overlooked and undervalued, a reflection of their timber having little commercial value. Perhaps the most overlooked of these has been the native black-poplar, a tree of lowland flood plains that has lost out to years of agricultural drainage.
That the black-poplar should have slipped from our collective awareness is perhaps surprising. It is a large and highly distinctive tree, with its gracefully arching boughs, massive size when mature and an often-leaning trunk. During the 1970s, however, a burst of interest in the tree was revived thanks to the efforts of Edgar Milne-Redhead. Having recently retired from his job at the Kew herbarium, Milne-Redhead began to track down and document the locations of mature black-poplars across southern Britain, with much of his efforts concentrated here in East Anglia. The results of this work, coupled with that of more recent studies, suggest a national population somewhere in the region of 6,000 individuals.
References to native black-poplars in Norfolk can be found in the older literature, the earliest seemingly that included in a letter from Sir Thomas Browne to John Evelyn. James Grigor, writing in 1841, included a number in his records of notable trees from the region, some of which can be traced to individual trees still standing at sites within the county. The natural distribution is confused, however, by the presence of hybrid black-poplars planted because of their more upright form and faster growth. ‘Natural’ establishment requires the presence of male and female trees in close proximity, at sites where suitable conditions for seedling establishment are to be found. Many mature trees stand isolated, or are present in single-sex groups, leaving them, as Richard Mabey writes ‘marooned’, the ‘ghosts of a wilder and wetter landscape’.
In places, particularly where associated with a village, individual trees have been ‘adopted’ by the community and their importance is recognised and respected. As our knowledge of these trees increases, so we our discovering and documenting more relict populations. This knowledge should help to safeguard the future of this great tree, whose associations with the East Anglian landscape are captured in the works of Constable and other English landscape painters. The late Ted Ellis once wrote in his EDP column of a visit that he made to a particular black-poplar and later this year I hope to pay my respects to this ancient tree.