Growing up in Ohio in the mid 20th Century, I was enamored of Lombardy Poplars (Populus nigra ‘Italica’). They often grew in stately rows, perhaps a hundred or two feet away from a farm house, to ameliorate the wind or shade the house from the scorch of an afternoon Summer Sun. They grew to a height of 50 feet, sometimes twice that. They were relatively columnar with upright branches that seldom spread more than 15 or 20 feet. The leaves were a leathery, glossy green, turning brilliant gold in Autumn. They even smelled good. In Spring the waxy secretions that covered the emerging buds had a distinctive sweet scent that perfumed the air all around the tree.
When I landed in Korea in 1969, to run an Army Education Center, I found another praiseworthy aspect of this plant. At that time the country was still suffering from the defoliation of the Korean War. So early each April, Koreans all over the country cut sturdy switches (usually 30 inches long, or so), made a sharp diagonal slice at the end and jammed them down in the ground at a depth of 12 to 18 inches. In the cool wet Spring, these cuttings quickly rooted and by the following Summer a tree, several feet high, was on its way up to re-green the devastated low lands where armies had battled.
I’ve been back, a number of times, to Ohio and Korea, and these trees still stand.
When I arrived in the Pacific Northwest in 1970, I saw Lombardy Poplars yet again, but now, greener, and even more robust due to our mild moist climate.
And so, it would be reasonable to say that this is a magnificent, almost miracle working tree. And it is. But with strength and zeal can come lack of control that will drive a fastidious gardener into madness. Alas, for this reason no home owner should ever plant one of these trees in the garden. The roots run rampantly, and they sucker. No hyperbole: 100 yards from the tree, you’ll be battling vigorous roots that send up shoots which will grow into more trees. Then there is the nightmare of having the roots get into a sewage system. A straw size root will find a crack in an underground pipe and, in the moist darkness, quickly form a vast network that will back up your drains making you crazy and Roto-Rooter rich.
Because of their beauty and their ease of cultivation, Lombardy Poplars were planted in and around Madison Park, mostly in the late 1940s. Most have been taken out, but you’ll still see them here and there. So enjoy them, especially this month as the thick, handsome leaves turn bullion yellow and children collect them to take to school.
If you have acreage and need a wind break or a fast growing tree to enhance a view, cut a switch and push it into the soil in early March (in our climate). Just be certain that the plant is sited well away from a house or septic system, preferably down hill. A spot next to a stream or pond is perfect. In a rather short time you’ll have a statuesque tree which will delight you with Spring scents, produce masses of thick green leaves that will rustle musically in a Summer wind, dazzle you with a brilliant Autumn show and a sculptural skeleton come Winter.
This is a tree to love and adore….. but from afar.