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The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago and the next best time is now – Chinese proverb.
So some of the Thursday group volunteers did just that. Three black poplars planted at Water End, along the edge of the road to the Red Lion public house which dates from 1731 – a remote corner of the Ashridge estate.
The land was probably acquired around 1810 when the 7th Earl Bridgewater was making improvements to the road network leading to his new Mansion. Originally the road ran along the other side of the river to a ford, crossing the river Gade next to the public house. John William was probably responsible for the building of the current road bridge and improving the road leading to the main Estate entrance at Nettleden Lodge, built in the late 1600’s.
According to the Forestry Commission, the black poplar is the most endangered native timber tree in Britain. It is a broad-leaf deciduous tree which can grow to one hundred feet and can live for two hundred years. The bark is dark brown but often appears black, and is thick with numerous fissures and burrs. Twigs are lumpy and brown in colour, and the leaves are shiny, green and heart-shaped, with long tips and a mild scent of balsam. Young leaves are covered in fine, tiny hairs.
The black poplar is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are found on separate trees. The flowers develop as catkins -male catkins are red and female catkins are yellow-green – and are pollinated by the wind. Once fertilised, female catkins develop into fluffy cotton-like seeds, which fall in late summer.
As a declining species, it is rarely found and often grows in isolation. The black poplar is most prevalent in Shropshire, Cheshire, Somerset and East Anglia, growing best in boggy conditions, alongside ditches and on floodplains. There are fourteen wild mature recorded trees in Bedfordshire, three in Buckinghamshire and just two in Hertfordshire.
It is is the food-plant for the caterpillars of many moths, and the catkins provide an early source of pollen and nectar for bees and other insects, while the seeds are eaten by birds.
There are so few wild black poplars left in the countryside that it is unlikely that they will pollinate each other, and with the planting of cultivated trees there is a lack of the true wild species. No doubt the Trust had this in mind when sourcing the new saplings – they do not plant many new trees at Ashridge so this is a welcome addition.
The saplings are over six feet tall and will be a striking feature in years to come – should you wish to take a look then a word of warning – do not walk at the water’s edge. You may suddenly find yourself up to your knees in mud and needing rescuing! The Trust do not want lone rangers walking in dangerous areas.
Another interesting plant at Water End, on the river bank behind the Red Lion pub there are some fine examples of a sedge – Carex Paniculata or greater tussock sedge which can live for at least fifty years. At first glance you might be forgiven for thinking that the carex look like camouflaged soldiers ready for action, rather than tussocks!

Thanks to Ed Bennett for his input.

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