The Black Poplar tree in Anglo-Saxon England

By Peter C Horn, gesith

The distinguished botanist, the late Edgar Milne-Redhead, from the mid 1970’s, did much to draw attention to the Black Poplar, Populus nigra subsp. betulifolia, as a splended, but largely overlooked, English native tree.  In a letter to the writer, in 1993, he mentioned that he was overwhelmed by correrpondence received, over 500 letters, regarding the distribution of this tree in England.

Richard Mabey says it is our grandest native tree and that it has a thick fissured trunk covered with massive bosses and burrs, growing to over 100 feet if uncut.(Mabey P. 134). Oliver Rackham, the leading expert on British trees, says, no other tree can compare with its rugged grandeur. Its massive, straight, but leaning trunk often reaches 100 feet tall and 6 feet thick” (Rackham, 1986, P.207). It would originally have grown on the unstable flood plains of rivers (Rackham, 1976/2004, P. 22).Kemble Martin says, of Betulifolia, perhaps native by streamsides (1982). As a very impressive, native tree it must have been known to the Anglo-Saxons, who were particularly noted for their use of the wood of various trees for all manner of purposes.

Other Species of Poplar in England

The Aspen, Populus tremula, is native to Britain. The White poplar, Populus alba, is said to be an early introduction, but according to Rackham, may be native. The  Grey Poplar, Populus canescens, appears to be a hybrid between the Aspen and the White Poplar.  The Middle English name Poplar comes from the Old French poplier (from Latin populus of uncertain meaning). The Middle English Abele, applied to the White Poplar and sometimes to the Grey Poplar, is from the French and Latin abel, meaning white.

Application of Names

At Nowton in Sufflok in 1310, John Petrys was fined 2s for felling a poplar and Will Gunnild felled an Abel worth 2s6d (Rackham 1976/2004 P188).    This seems to show that, at that time, the term poplar was not applied to the White Poplar.  Rackham says Poplar is richly recorded in medieval documents. The word popel or popular is systematically distinguished from Aspen (aspe) and white poplar (abel) and must denote black poplar. (Rackham, 1986 P.207). Rackham, examining Anglo-Saxon Charters, says One mention of popul at Michelmarsh, Hants, may refer to Black Poplar, which would otherwise be unaccountably absent from the Anglo-Saxon evidence (1986. P.210). The infrequent appearance of Black Poplar in Anglo-Saxon records may be because it is not a woodland tree, but a tree of fens and flood plains.

Early Glosses and Runic Poem

Having established above that when the Anglo-Saxons used the term popul or populus they probably meant the black popular, the problem arises as to why, in the following glosses, populus is equated with birce (the birch tree):

Epinal-Erfurt 792                                    populus: birciae

Corpus 1609                                              populus: birce

Wright, Voc 1 33 2 80 13                       byrc: populus

Anecdota Oxon, 56 364 365                  byric: populus betula

The last gloss leaves no doubt that it is the native birch tree, Betula pendula that is being equated with the black poplar.

In the Anglo-Saxon Runic Poem, under the tree called Beorc, the description of the tree does not seem to relate to the birch tree. The poem reads as follows:

Beorc by∂ bleda leas, bere∂ efne swa ∂eah                              Birch is fruitless. Eeven though

Tanas butan tudder, bi∂ on telgum wlitig                               It bears twigs without offspring

Heah on helme hrysted fægere                                                    It is in its branches beautiful

Geloden leafum, lyfte getenge                                                     High on crown and fairly adorned

(Dickins 1915)                                                                                  Laden with leaves towards the sky

(Writer’s translation)

Dickens points out that the description of the tree in the poem is more suggestive of a species of poplar than a birch tree. The poem seems to describe a tree larger and taller than a birch and it describes a tree that does not regenerate from seed, which again does not apply to the birch tree. Dickens, influenced by the early glosses listed above, concludes that the tree in the poem is the Grey Poplar, Populus canescens, which is taller than the birch and also, according to Dickens, does not readily regenerate from seed. However, as mentioned above, the Grey Poplar is accepted as being a hybrid and is unlikely to have been known to the Angl0-Saxons.  The Anglo-Saxons, according to Rackham as mentioned above, probably applied the name popul/populus to the Black Poplar, and the latter, according to Marren, has no seed dormancy and in consequence hardly ever produces a tree (Marren, 1999). Therefore the Black Poplar would be a better candidate for the tree described in the Runic poem.

The question remains as to why, if the tree described in the Runic poem is a Black Poplar, the name Beorc (Birch) was applied to the treeand why, likewise, was the name populus equated to the name beorc in a number of glosses. This calls for some explanation. The Anglo-Saxons would have been very familiar with their limited range of native trees, but there does not seem to be an Old English name for the black poplar, or, at least, no such name has come down to us. The name populus or popel is Latin, or a corruption of a Latin name. Instead, they seem to be using the Old English name beorc to include both birch tree and black poplar. What, if anything have the two species of tree in common to warrent the extended use of the name beorc?  

At first the two species look very different, but a clue lies in the botanical name of the black poplar, i.e. Populus nigra subsp betulifolia. The term betulifolia means Birch leaf and refers, in this instance, to the diamond-shaped, lightly serrated leaves of the black poplar, which are very similar to the leaves of the Birch tree.  And, as Cockayne says, similarity of leaves seems to have been the chief guide to Saxon nomenclature (Vol 2, Glossary p 379). It was not until much later that botanists emerged with their detailed studies of plant morphology. Another example of the Saxon scribe being confused by the similarity of leaves is given by Cockayne, which involves Ceaster æsc that is Helleborus niger also known as Black Hellebore, which has leaves like those of the ash tree (Cockayne, Vol. 2 p 368). Thus it seems not unlikely that the Black Popular could have been regarded by the Anglo-Saxons as a larger variety of the Birch tree.


Mabey R. Flora Britannica, 1996

Rackham O. The History of the Countryside, 1986

Keble Martin W. The New Concise British Flora, 1982

Rackham O. Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape, 1976/1990

Dickens B. (Ed) Runic & Heroic Poems of the Old Teutonic Peoples, 1915

Marren P. Britain’s Rare Flowers, 1999

Cockayne Oswald, Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, 1864/2001