The History and Uses of Populus Species

The members of the Salicaceae family have a long history of usefulness to humans. Willows (Salix spp.)have provided weapons, materials for shelters and baskets, and salicylic acid for pain relief for thousands of years. The poplars and cottonwoods (Populus spp.) have also found great favor for the services and materials that they provide.

The Native Americans of the Great Basin and the Great Plains regions would peel strips of various cottonwood species as winter browse for their horses. In the Pacific Northwest, indigenous groups would use the sap of the black cottonwood as an antibiotic, the roots as a material for producing fire by friction, and the cambium as a spring food source (Pojar-MacKinnon et. al. 1994). In the Desert Southwest, the Navajo and Hopi tribes traditionally carve "kachinas"- dolls representing various gods and spirits- from the roots and wood of the Fremont cottonwood (Whitman 1986). To the Lakota tribe, the black cottonwood takes on special religious significance as the central pole in their all-important Sun Dance ceremony (Lame Deer 1972).

The bark of various poplars and aspens provide valuable winter forage for large ungulates such as deer and elk, and the buds of eastern cottonwood are important as a mainstay of the winter diet of the ruffed grouse.

In this century, certain species of poplar, notably the Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra var. italica) have frequently been planted as a windbreak and for shade on farms and in neighborhoods and cities (Whitman 1986). There can, however, be too much of a good thing. When Stalin was the leader of the USSR, he promoted the planting of poplars all over the capital city of Moscow. The trees, for the most part, undoubtedly improve Moscow's urban environment, but, because of the great numbers in which they were planted, also present a significant public health problem due to the allergic reaction the seed fibers cause in many individuals (Matthew Ouimet, pers. communication, 1996).

The wood of the poplar is not renowned for its hardness, but is certainly suitable for veneer, firewood, paper pulp, and chemical production. However, certain clones of hybrid poplar are promising in terms of higher strength as well as ease of biomass production. The wood of some clones of Populus trichocarpa x deltoides is stronger than that of either Douglas-fir or either of the parent species.

New chemical engineering processes have opened up a multitude of new uses for hybrid poplar, including one echoing the Indian use of long ago: poplar fiber, once the lignin is artificially digested and removed, can even be converted into a decent feedstock for grazing animals.

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