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The Black Poplar Story

Growth is often exemplified by a mighty oak growing from a tiny acorn; here is the story of what has grown from a single twig. The twig was taken from a poplar tree at World’s End, Roydon and sent to the Forestry Commission in response to the native black poplar search sponsored by the Daily Telegraph. Obviously it proved to be from an authentic tree otherwise the story would end here!

At that time, 1995, only 1,500  genuine native black poplars were recorded in the country and so one in Roydon would seem to have been our fair share. But as enthusiastic searching spread across the country, the number increased to10,000 within a few years and in Roydon there was a proportionate increase to 40 trees resulting from the Landmark Tree Initiative and other researches, What made the Roydon trees significant was that 30 of the trees were female; the national total being only 500 or so.

The native black poplar had become rare because the conditions for natural germination had become rare; the seed needed to be on land damp throughout the year and without competition from other plants. Changes in land use had decreased the incidence of such land. The tree had survived through being planted from cuttings to provide timber. The shape of the branches and the fact that the wood is fire resistant meant that it was useful for constructing buildings. It was used also for floorboards, clogs, brake blocks and in many other ways.

Black Poplar leaves

Less females were planted because, it is said, that farmers’ wives did not like the masses of fluff they produced.

There was a general decline in planting in the mid 19th century when faster growing hybrid trees came in, You can see stands of these tress around which were planted for match making. Hybrid poplars are also useful for masking unsightly developments such as gravel workings.

Unfortunately many of the trees recorded were in a precarious state, being lapsed pollards. That was why Roydon Countrycare applied successfully for a Local Heritage Initiative grant in order to carry out remedial work. A great deal of research has been carried out nationally in the last couple of decades to find out how to repollard trees of various species without causing fatal shock to them. The Roydon scheme was to carry out the work over a number of years with the results being monitored by Chris Neilan, Epping Forest District Council’s Tree Officer, working with Roydon Tree Wardens. The scheme started in 2001 and was completed in 2007. The height of the trees has been gradually lowered to end up with vigorous new growth largely stemming from the top of the trunk. We were not able to save one tree but the others treated should now be safe for decades.

One of the conditions attached to the grant was that there should be community involvement. The most exciting instance of this in Roydon was the week spent with Year 6 at Roydon School in July 2001. The pupils studied the anatomy of trees, particularly black poplars, did creative writing and paintings and visited East End Farm to see the tree surgeon at work. This work resulted in a much-acclaimed booklet and Roydon School won the LHI Eastern Region Young Pioneers award that year.

The Millennium was marked by planting black poplars in locations throughout the parish.

To celebrate the Queen’s jubilee The Tree Council chose Fifty Great British Trees and the original Roydon black poplar was chosen as representing the Roydon poplars. Epping Forest District Council marked the honour by having a ceremony at the tree and a champagne reception in St. Peter’s Church Hall. A wide range of people attended including E.F.D.C. Chairman, a representative from the Tree Council, parish councillors and children from Roydon School: even the spirit of the tree made an appearance!  

Care and respect for old trees should be accompanied by planting new ones, so Roydon Tree Wardens started a scheme for planting cuttings along the Stort Valley. Cuttings have been planted at Roydon, Harlow (Parndon Marsh), Sawbridgworth, Hunsdon Mead and near the source of the Stort at Langley. Cuttings have also been provided for the Lee Valley Regional Park black poplar nursery and for planting at King’s Mead between Ware and Hertford. The Stort Valley planting idea was given a major boost when the Government funded a project called “Pollards and Poplars” for the Stort at Harlow. This two-year project is being administered by Herts Groundwork Trust and carried out by North Hertfordshire Countryside Management Service. Roydon Countrycare has been involved, not least by introducing the officer involved to Charles Abbey at East End Farm who suggested locations, supplied cuttings, and planted them. Since Charles only has female trees on his land, Roydon Countrycare was able to supply some male cuttings. Charles, on whose land grows the Great British Tree, has become a great black poplar enthusiast planting them all round the farm.

All this from a twig from a tree which could have easily been taken for granted. There is much to be discovered in our local environment; Roydon Tree Wardens have recorded over 200 veteran and notable trees in the parish but that is another story……


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