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Poplars - Genus: Populus and Willows (osiers) - Genus: Salix - An article from "The Trees Of Old England" by Leo H.Grindon
Poplars - Genus: Populus and Willows (osiers) - Genus: Salix by Leo Hartley Grindon; Previously a Lecturer on Botany at the Royal School of Medicine, Manchester. Author of "Life: its Nature, Varieties, and Phenomena;" "British and Garden Botany;" " The Little Things of Nature;" "Echoes in Plant and Flower Life," and others.
Poplars - Genus: Populus and Willows (osiers) - Genus: Salix - A Sketch of the aspects, associations and uses of Poplars - Genus: Populus and Willows (osiers) - Genus: Salix which constitute the forests and give effect to the scenery of Great Britain.
Innumerable phenomena in nature testify to its harmony with man and all that pertains to him. Every circumstance of his animal life, from the cradle to the edge of the grave, is in one way or another mirrored and duplicated; no matter of surprise is it, then, that at every turn we are met by examples of close relationships among trees such as are calculated to remind us of the ties which constitute families among ourselves. One of the special occupations of the botanist is to determine the affinities which plants bear to one another; to notice, that is to say, the resemblances which subsist among them, and to bring together, as far as pen and paper, and the hortus siccus and the botanic garden will allow, those which most nearly resemble in essentials. This is the "delightful task" for which, after rearing "the tender shoot," he finds a long life-time give opportunity for only a very partial performance. It is pure and enduring enjoyment nevertheless, since every day and hour he learns more and more the significance of that beautiful word Unity.
By reason of these concordances and agreements it is well that in our present survey the Poplar tree and the Willow should be taken together. Members of a great family distinguished from all others by producing a portion, if not the whole, of their flowers, in those pretty pendulous clusters called "catkins," these two are still isolated and characterised by a peculiarity of their own. While all other species of the " Amentiferae " have their stamens and pistils produced from different buds upon the same tree, these two races, the poplars and the willows, have their two kinds of flowers not only developed from different buds, but the two sets of buds are confined to different trees! In a word, to adopt the technical language of the schools, poplars and willows are "dioecious," while all other trees that bear catkins, or those at least which belong to the Amentiferse, are "monoecious." These terms were contrived by Linngeus in that happy spirit of poetry which gives force and feeling to all true science, the idea conveyed in them being that trees are houses, the inhabitants of which, like human beings, are male and female, the monoecious kinds answering to households such as contain representatives of both sexes, while the dioecious kinds are noted for their inhabitants being respectively of only one sex. There are plenty of herbaceous plants which illus. trate the same economy, especially in the class denominated "sedges" and of these also there are examples both of the monoecious and of the dioecious structure. Some botanists are inclined to consider these plants, poplars, willows, sedges, and the like, of higher position in the scale of nature than such as are bisexual, or formed like the apple and rose. If resemblance to the animal economy in respect of sex be paramount, of course there can be no demur; but resemblance to animal powers and functions exists in plants under so many different aspects, and is often so rich and startling, that no particular resemblance can be selected without ignoring equally just claims by many others. What, for instance, becomes of the sensitive-plant, with its marvellous susceptibility to touch? what of those strange vegetable carnivora, the Dionaea and the Sundew, the Nepenthes and the Sarracenia, plants which are so organized as to capture insects, and remind us of predatory birds and quadrupeds? No single plant, no race of plants, is in all particulars pre-eminent, nor is any one kind nearest to man, or even to animal life. Nature is everywhere the echo and solution of its lord and master; therefore touches him, in its phenomena, at every point.
Not only do the poplar and the willow agree, among 1 the Amentiferae, in being dioecious, and thus differ from all their congeners; their fruit also is perfectly distinct from that of every other species of the family, and by this alone, in the time of its ripeness, may they be identified. While the oak, the beech, and the hazel, yield some kind of acorn or nut, round as an egg, or curiously angled; and while the birch and the alder supply a mimic cone, imitating, afar off, the sculptured produce of the pine-tree: these two, the willow and the poplar, prepare clusters of little capsules, from which, as soon as they burst, is discharged an immense quantity of the whitest vegetable silk. Unfortunately, the fibre is so short as to render it unavailable for manufacturing into thread, or yarn such as would be adapted to the requirements of the weaver; in its usefulness to give softness to cushions and pillows it is nevertheless unequalled and unapproached.
The clusters of poplar seed-capsules are exactly of the figure and general appearance of bunches of currants, though usually much longer, attaining ordinarily four or five inches. While green, every capsule is perfectly spherical, bursting in due time, by a vertical crack, into two little halves. The capsules of the willow, on the other hand, are densely packed; individually they are conical, and, when they burst, the two canoe-shaped and sharplypointed halves are gracefully recurved. There is a further distinction found in the clusters of stamenflowers. The little scales by which the stamens are shielded are in the willows smooth-edged, but in the poplars torn and ragged; and while in willows the stamens seldom exceed two in number, in poplars they are at least eight, and sometimes many more.
These delicate distinctions are rendered necessary in botany by the frequently strong resemblances which subsist in the architecture and in the profile of plants, judging by which alone, we are liable to be led into error. Moreover, by carefully observing them, many things which apparently have little connection, prove in the end to be most intimately related, and a capital hint is offered as to precipitancy in decision with regard to matters far more noble and vital than trees. How common, for instance, the belief that the name of "poplar" applies legitimately only to that tall and spire-like and most unsociable tree which is everywhere seen towering aloft in suburban gardens, or forming a kind of colonnade in the hedgerow. Yet this is only one out of many kinds of poplars, and neither the most important kind nor, strange to say, of the same antiquity as the others. The "Lombardy poplar," by which name this spire-shaped one should always be called, is only a variety of the good old-fashioned "Black." Like the spireshaped variety of the common yew, and the similar -variety of the furze-bush, it is a sport of nature in comparatively recent times, showing over again, how full alike of play and flexibility is that beautiful old "spirit of the woods " which the ancient poets half-deified, converting the trees into a sisterhood of dryads. Though by no means a pleasing object when standing alone, the Lombardy poplar, judiciously intermingled with other trees, gives an air that no other so well supplies, conferring upon the grove that same beautiful addition which is given to the view of a distant city by its towers and spires. Contrasts lie at the heart of all our enjoyments, and it is only by such intermixtures of umbrageousness and slender loftiness that the beau ideal of sylvan charm is originated in wood and forest.
The poplars, botanically so called, comprise not only this common spire-like tree and its widelybranching parent, the " Old English black," but also the abele and the aspen. Besides these European, or at all events Old World forms, there being reason to believe them originally Asiatic, there are several species indigenous to North America. All, except the latter, agree in the curious peculiarity of having their petioles laterally compressed at the extremity next to the blade. Hence arises that incessant fluttering which has made a proverb of the aspen, and which finds mention even in the sacred records, though apparently connected, through a mistranslation, with an entirely different tree. "When thou shalt hear a sound of going in the tops of the mulberry-trees," should by right be "in the tops of the poplar-trees." Placed alongside of the leaves of their near relations, the willows, poplar leaves are found to be, as a rule, scarcely longer than broad, where widest; the leaves of willow-trees, on the other hand, as a rule, excel considerably in length. It is worthy of notice too that while the leaves of poplar-trees are exceedingly prone to become vegetable skeletons, lying as they do, in this condition, often by hundreds where poplar-trees abound, and found even in suburban gardens, those of the willow decay in every part at once, and yield none of the delicate tracery so remarkable in the others. Lastly, there is a curious contrast in the aspiring tendency of the poplar, and in the "weeping" inclination, not only of the famous willow of Babylon, but in several other represervatives of the germs. The last-named feature has obtained for the willow a place in the "Language of Flowers." When the poet would picture sadness, he needs only to cite this drooping and sorrowful tree; the very name is a synonyme for grief beyond assuaging. How deep the meaning in the description of poor, forsaken, desolated Dido, In such a night, Stood Dido with a willow in her hand, Upon the wild sea-banks, and waved her love To come again to Carthage.
In pictures such as these we have the sign of the true and immortal Poet, who, without wordy delineation of the varied passions that may fill the heart, presents to us, in a single phrase, a perfect idea of its condition. Even the erect kinds of willow have none of that pretty cheerfulness about them which belongs to most other trees. Although the springing of the willows " by the watercourses" is used as an illustration of gladness and prosperity, they seem by nature intended for association rather with times of mournfulness than of joy. Possibly this may arise from their being so very generally located by the water-side, on the banks of slow streams and rivers, where the mind becomes attuned to melancholy, and even the reeds convey utterances of dejection. Hence, it would appear, the frequent connection, both of the willow and the poplar, with events that have a hue of trouble, in the legends bequeathed to us by the ancient fabulists. When the sisters of Phaeton, inconsolable for the untimely end of their brother, were by the pitying deity transformed into trees, poplars were made the memorial, and to this day, every spring, the tears of those unhappy ladies reappear upon the opening leaf-buds. It was upon a poplar that (Enone found the inscription left by her faithless lover; it is with a poplar that Yirgil connects his exquisite image of the nightingale robbed of her nest:
Similarly, with the willow we find connected the fable of Arethusa, whose bathing in a stream overhung with these trees, mingled with poplars, led to the events that caused her transformation into the spring which retains her name to the present moment. Transferring our interests from the remote past to the days of Hamlet, how beautifully again is the willow introduced in the account of the death of Ophelia:
The great botanical distinction between the willow and poplar, compared with all other trees of ordinary occurrence, has been mentioned above. The discrimination of the particular kinds of willow is not so easy, the species being numerous. The larger kinds, natives of Great Britain, may be told by their very long and narrow leaves, tapering to each extremity. In the common willow, Salix fragilis, so named from the readiness with which the young branches break away from the main bough, the leaves are green, without admixture of grey; in the white willow, Salix alba, every leaf is clothed on both surfaces with white and silky hairs, which give it the hoary appearance alluded to by the poets.
Besides these, there is the shining bay-leaved willow, Salix pentandra, which has all the gloss and lustre of some fine evergreen, and exudes an aromatic odour from glands along the edges of the leaves. The large honey yellow catkins contribute also to render this tree very ornamental in early summer. The poplars are few in number, and are at once told by the shape and colour of the leaves. Those of the abele, or white poplar, are angularly toothed or lobed, and covered upon the under-surface with a grey and felty substance: in the black poplar (Black Poplar Tree - Radford Meadows - Staffs and Worcs Canal, Staffordshire) they are perfectly glabrous, nearly triangular, and without lobes: in the aspen they are likewise glabrous, circular, or nearly so, and with coarse indentations. The epithet "black," is applied to the kind of poplar so designated not because of actual nigritude in any part, but as an antithesis to "white," the well-deserved epithet of the abele. A similar antithesis gives the name of "white" to certain varieties of grapes; and of "black-thorn" to the snowy-flowered sloe: the epithet in this latter case signifying leafless, as opposed to leafy. Whether all three of the European poplars be aboriginally and veritably British is, after all, not quite decided. These trees extend so far to the east, and so early attracted the attention of travellers and transplanters, that it is quite possible, as above remarked, that they may have been introduced in the first place from Asia. Support is furnished -to this idea by the etymology of the name, which would seem to be radically identical with "peepul," the name given in India to the sacred fig, Ficus religiosa, and which would be extended to the poplar because of the resemblance, as to general figure, in the leaf, though the trees are not in any degree related in regard to structure.
The wood of the poplar is soft, light, and whitish or pale yellow. Hence it is of little use in the arts, except for certain descriptions of toys. For the floors of apartments in houses, however, it is well suited, not only from its colour, but from the facility with which it is scoured, and the slowness with which it catches fire and burns. In this last respect it is exactly the reverse of deal. From its softness, it cannot be expected to be very durable; but this defect is only marked when it is exposed to the changes of the external atmosphere or to injury by water. Nails can be driven into it near the edge without danger of splitting, so that it is particularly well adapted for the manufacture of packing-cases. The wood of the aspen is much more combustible .than that of the other English poplars; and that of the nigra is much liked for bowls, platters, and butchers' trays.
Poplars - Genus: Populus and Willows (osiers) - Genus: Salix An article from "The Trees Of Old England" continued...
Poplars - Genus: Populus and Willows (osiers) - Genus: Salix
The willows, that is to say, the "crack" willow, Salix fragiallis, and the white willow, Salix alia, are probably, inthe full sense of the word, indigenous. Our English climate suits these trees well, as also the smaller kinds familiarly known as osiers and withies, which useful contributions to the necessities of the basket-maker are chiefly furnished by the Salix viminalis. How long basket-making from osiers has been practised in our island, may be judged of from the fact that the very word "basket" is, with a trifling difference in the spelling, the very same that was used here two thousand years ago. No one after this will demur to the osier, at all events, being native. The word in question is one of the very few ancient British terms that have lived into our own modern English. It is preserved in its Celtic form by the Eoman poet Martial, one of whose epigrams, freely rendered, runs as follows:
From Britain's painted sons I came, And "basket" is my barbarous name; But now I am so modish grown, That Borne would claim me for her own!
The shields and coracles of the ancient Britons were also made of wicker, osierwork having apparently been with this rude and simple people just what papyrus-work was with the ancient Egyptians. It is this self-same plant which, with the Salix Caprcea, and one or two other species, has now for ages borne the name of "palm" or more properly "palm willow" being usually in full bloom on Palm Sunday, and thus available for use where the ancient emblematic practice of carrying or "strowing" palm-branches cannot be carried out with the leaves of the genuine tree. The veritable palm is used upon the shores of the Mediterranean; as we recede northwards, other plants must needs be substituted, and at last, in England, the palm-willow proves efficient.
So it continues: every different climate and country supplying for the occasion some cheerful stalk of green or yellow; England in its turn contributing the willow. Rosalind was acquainted with this tree when she entered the house exclaiming " See what I have found upon a palm! "
Other important uses subserved by the genus Salix are its contribution of an excellent wood, in the forms called alba and Russelliana, which last is a variety of the fragilis; and of that valuable tonic medicine called salicine, extracted by chemical process from the bark of the Russelliana and some others, and which has been found equally efficacious with quinine, extracted from "Peruvian bark" which is supplied in turn by various species of Cinchona. Even a strong infusion of willow-bark in boiling water, left to stand with the bark in it until cold, is nearly as efficacious as the elaborately prepared salicine itself; and in rural districts might often be advantageously employed without the trouble and expense of " sending for the doctor." The wood, which is elastic, tough, and durable, and not liable to split by any sudden shock, is much used for lining the rough carts and barrows used for the conveyance of stone: it is excellent also for various applications in connection with machinery.
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