Project to boost Dorset population of rare native tree

Once common in the British countryside, there are now just 7,000 black poplars left in the UK and only around 600 of these are female. A DNA test has confirmed that the CRT’s Bere Marsh Farm in Dorset is home to one of these extremely rare female black poplars.

Black poplars can live for 200 years and reach 30 metres in height. Their name is derived from their bark, which is dark brown but often appears black. Bere Marsh Farm provides perfect growing conditions for this water loving tree, because the farm is regularly flooded by the River Stour.

Black poplar is a dioecious species, which means male and female catkin flowers are found on separate trees. Male catkins are red and female catkins are yellowy green. The flowers are pollinated by the wind and female catkins then develop into fluffy cotton-like seeds, which fall in late summer.

Andy Fale, the CRT’s Wildlife Monitor for Dorset, explained that these fluffy seeds, similar to those produced by willow, are one reason for the female trees’ rarity. “A lot of female black poplars were removed because they were considered ‘messy’. Another key problem is that many black poplars have hybridised with non-native poplars,” said Andy.

Poplar species are also prone to a variety of fungal diseases. There are now so few left that it is unlikely they will pollinate each other.

Black poplars respond well to being coppiced, so the team at Bere Marsh Farm knew it would be fine to take cuttings from this rare tree. Volunteers have helped to pot up 200 small cuttings, which we hope will put down roots and grow into saplings.

Andy added: “We will plant a couple on Bere Marsh Farm, while we hope the others will be planted elsewhere in the Stour Valley to help increase the number of native black poplars in the area.”

Black poplar is the food plant for the caterpillars of many moths, including the hornet, wood leopard, poplar hawk and figure of eight. The catkins provide an early source of pollen and nectar for bees and other insects, and the seeds are eaten by birds*.

The rare female black poplar tree on Bere Marsh Farm in Dorset.

CRT volunteers pot up cuttings of the female black poplar tree on Bere Marsh Farm.

*Species information about black poplar sourced from The Woodland Trust.

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