Tuesday, 1 October 2019

What is All That Poplar Used For?

This topic came up in conversation the other day. There certainly is a lot of poplar plantations in the Loire Valley, and we wrote a blog about them way back in November 2008! So I thought I'd refresh and repost.


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 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).
Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.
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.
Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

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.
Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

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 fortified monastic farm, at Liget near Montrésor.
Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

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). The bigger pieces of the trunk might be used for lumber (the original lintel over our back door was poplar, for example) and the brash from the top of the tree now gathered up to be munched up for pellets or chips and burned in modern heating systems.

The wood has been used for centuries in furniture making as a superior alternative to pine for drawers and other largely hidden elements, inside or painted. As a 'white wood' that is harder than pine and cheaper and easier to work than walnut, oak or maple, it has a certain value to joiners and furniture makers. The trees grow fast and straight too, which is another reason they can be substituted for pine.

Poplars are planted alongside rivers and on low lying land because they are quite happy with 'wet feet'.  They are seen by farmers as one of the few reliable crops for flood prone meadows. In the old days, cattle would have been put to graze the lush grass that grows naturally on such land or it would have been cut for hay in the summer, but many farms have gone out of cattle and now concentrate on growing cereal. Nevertheless, many small plantations end up being abandoned, not harvested until their wood is worthless. The trees are quite shallow rooted and prone to snapping or falling in windy conditions. Our local river techician takes a dim view of them because they damage river banks when uprooted in the wind.

One of the nicest things about poplars is that Golden Orioles like them. They arrive every year from Africa to breed and often choose poplar plantations. Count yourself lucky if you see one though -- for bright yellow and black birds they are remarkably difficult to spot. You will hear them though.


For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

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Colin and Elizabeth said...

We walked regularly in our local one just on the outskirts of Braye-sous-Faye.It also provided a wealth of photo opportunities.

Susan said...

A fine selection of mistletoe in your photos!

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