Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Why are There so Many Poplar Plantations in Central Lowland France?

This is a question that has long bedevilled us. No one seemed to know the answer. It seemed odd that there were so many small groves of these striking trees, made all the more striking by the strict regularity of their grid plan planting. What on earth were they used for?

Poplars on the river side (above) at Bossay-sur-Claise, one village upstream from Preuilly. Like many poplars these are heavily infested with mistletoe, quite noticeable in the winter when the trees have no leaves (this picture was taken in February).

I knew that poplars had traditionally been used to make matches, but surely, I thought, hardly anybody uses matches any more – they can't all be destined for Bryant and May's.

A stand of poplars near Champigny sur Veude, north of Richelieu.

I can now reveal to you the answer, thanks to a forum I belong to and a bit of online digging – hurrah for the internet !

Another stand north of Richelieu, this time near Coudray.

Rather charmingly, French fathers traditionally plant a grove of poplars when their daughters are born. The idea is that they will be mature and ready to fell just when the daughter gets married, and the proceeds from the sale of the poplar wood funds the wedding festivities. You can always tell a family with ugly daughters because their poplars are left to get old and gnarled.

This lovely scene is la Corroirie, once a monastery, at Liget near Montrésor.

But what is the wood actually used for, you are still wondering...

Well, apparently it is used for fruit boxes ! And cheese boxes ! No wonder there are so many groves – French cheesemakers would be devastated if the supply ran out. Looks like poplar may be 'the only wood that is food grade and pliable enough'.

Poplar is also widely used to make paper, and there is a long tradition of high quality paper manufacture in France (I notice my pad of Windsor and Newton cartridge paper, which I use for mounting botanical specimens, is made in France) .

Poplars are also used as flood mitigation in many places, planted alongside rivers because they are quite happy with 'wet feet' and they help to stabilise the soil so it doesn't wash away.

Susan

15 comments:

Dedene said...

Great post! We have tons of poplar stands around Sully and Gien too. Now, I can show off with my knowledge on why they exist. There must have been many ugly daughters here in the Loiret, because there are alot of poplars still standing!

wcs said...

I think I knew about the selling of the wood angle, but not the use of the wood nor using the proceeds for a wedding! I always learn something from these blogs!

By the way, the new header is really nice!

Susan said...

Wonderful informative post. We have often wondered about those "balls of greenery" in the trees. The story of the birth of daughters and planting of the trees is what makes me love Europe so much!!

Susan said...

Walt – I hope you noticed whose cheese boxes I linked to? :-)

Hi 'other' Susan, great to see you here!

Dedene – well all those poor Loiret girls have had to compete with the exotic foreigners snaffling their men :-)

chm said...

My impression is that the story about fathers planting poplars when their daughters are born is probably just a nice fabrication, based on some facts.
Poplars are planted near rivers because they like water, but also because nothing else of value would grow there, the ground being too wet. In addition, they grow fast and straight. Their wood is valuable. It is known as "bois blanc" and has many different uses as you mentioned.
P.S. The word verification was terfid. I'm terrified!

Papadesdeux said...

Like chm said, Poplars grow relatively fast and straight. I don't know when it started, at least since the 17th - 18th centuries, but it has long been a "popular" wood in furniture making for drawers and the interior furniture elements. Harder and more stable than softwoods like pine, and easier to work than hardwoods like walnut or maple or oak. It just doesn't finish up very "pretty" so it has always been relegated to the parts one doesn't see or pieces that were meant to be painted.

Papadesdeux said...

PS: Very nice photos.

Susan said...

I knew if I posted this I would get a bunch of 'if only you had asked me first I could have told you' answers :-) Thanks chm and PdD. Now that you mention it PdD, the use in unseen parts of furniture rings a bell – I think I had read that somewhere before and forgotten it.

I knew that their value was that they grew fast and straight, but the key seems to be that they are a source of cheap, local hardwood, and therefore often of more use than pine.

Ken Broadhurst said...

Somewhere I read that poplars, which like wet ground, also are valuable in that they stabilize river banks. There's a big stand of them, in nice rows, on the banks of the Cher just down at the end of our road.

Susan said...

Ken – there is no doubt that these tall straight poplars act as quite good stabilisers, and have no objection to occasionally quite wet feet. They have the added advantage of having a commercial value. In situations where stabilisation and flood risk is the overiding issue, I think Black Poplar (as seen in many Constable paintings) and Alder would be used. These species are even more tolerant of wet, and establish a more natural ecology, so they are tougher.

Ken Broadhurst said...

Where we live, the Rouère de l'Aulne runs into the Cher River just at the bottom of our hill. That means something like Alder Creek. We have a lot alders, birches, aspens, and poplars around here.

Sweetpea in France said...

Poplar trees are relatively quick growing (2 feet per year) and because of the large number of very small branches they make extremely good wind breaks in both summer and winter.

Excellent blog. Thankyou.

purejuice said...

this is touching and evocative info like a peter ackroyd "invisible city" piece. i've been thinking about this post for days. thanks.

Susan said...

PJ – yes...PA always takes me a few days to digest too :-) I admire his writing and the connections he makes, but the man is hard work.

It's a nice compliment, thank you.

Jill Plane said...

The upside of the poplar plantations - whatever they are used for, is that the beautiful Golden Oriole birds favour them, and nest in these plantations each springtime when they arrive from Africa. These are extremely rare migrants in Britain, with just a couple of pairs arriving in the Cambridge area each year.