9 Populus (Poplar Genus)

Finding Meaning in Names

What’s in a name? A lot! Their cultural and historical meanings can vary so much and be described so differently across diverse cultures. While European settlers were roasting and grinding Kentucky coffeetree seeds to remind them of home as they moved west, indigenous Americans had less need for a poor approximation of that beverage. Although the Meskwaki Nation are noted to consume the seeds this way, most Native peoples’ traditions involve using them differently. The pulverized root bark held widespread use as medicine for constipation, and the seeds were universally enjoyed as counters in games. Logically, it follows that the name indigenous people used for this tree was not the same as what white settlers called it.

Sometimes, on the other hand, names coalesce across cultures. American basswood’s name comes from the word bast, referring to the fibrous inner bark which Native Americans used extensively to make cord and rope and were doing so when early settlers arrived and observed these activities. In Ojibwe language, bast is called wiigob, their same name for the basswood tree itself. The processed bast fiber is called asigobaan, indicative of the extensive use of and therefore the need to name this product. Some colonists were well aware of and had used the inner bark for the same purpose historically back in their native homelands. Many newcomers dubbed this New World tree for its important use as bast, which morphed into the name, basswood. Others, recognizing the strong similarity of basswood (Tilia americana) to their own European native Tilia sp. called this New World tree American linden. In German, linden translates as linde, in Norwegian and Swedish, lind.

The genus Populus refers to aspens, poplars and cottonwoods, all classified in the Willow family. Aspens began to be colloquially referred to (regardless of species) in some regions of the US as popple, including here in Minnesota. Most likely, this is because the German word for poplar is pappel, and in Swedish, poppel, reflecting the ethnicity of Minnesota’s early white settlers. Trees in this genus have leaf stems (petioles) that are flattened, which causes them to tremble and flutter. In the 1700s, colonists brought along with them their favorite trees, including introducing a tree to N. America called white poplar (Populus alba), mostly because it is so attractive with the leaf’s white-toned, furry underside standing out prettily in contrast to the dark green leaf top. Over time, however, white poplar has become considered an invasive species here and threatens to overtake native landscapes with its root suckering habit of spreading.

Like the leaves of our native quaking aspen and big tooth aspen, white poplar leaves rustle continually at the slightest whiff of breeze. That is how the Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, came up with the genus name, Populus. In Latin, populus means people, and to Linnaeus the rustling leaves sounded like a crowd of murmuring voices. This, I can attest to with confidence, works for any culture! What all these voices are saying and in what languages offers up an interesting compilation of stories that describe a time, a place, and a people.

Going through my dad’s books shortly after he died, I came across a small tree ID book. As I flipped through it, the book opened to page with a pressed Ohio buckeye leaf (on the buckeye page, of course!), reminding of his interest in our yard’s tree I had long ago identified for him. Perhaps it was even from that tree! My heart warmed to this thought. Towards the back of the book, a small, white piece of paper appeared on which he had written a short list of tree names.

It reads:


Starting at Pavilion

White Poplar

Black Willow

American Elm

Crabapple, ornamental

Green Ash

River Birch


When it came time to add to the map of tagged trees, it struck me as essential to include those trees on my dad’s list. To me, this row of trees along the lakeshore represents species he felt were important enough to take note of. In addition, I surmised that other people on the walking path were like me, who, many years even before my naturalist proclivities kicked in, wanted to know the name that goes with the beautiful leaves of what I now know to be the white poplar (Populus alba) basically because of his list. Green ash is the only tree on the list that is gone now, destroyed by the emerald ash borer invasion. We have no tag for green ash trees because the city foresters have removed all those trees from the park.  Locating the rest of the trees on the list, however, was important to me. It connected me to some part of my dad’s thought process, besides giving me specific species he’d already identified in the area to educate myself about. From the list, I learned to identify white poplar, black willow, and river birch and the general areas in the park where they grow. Of all the trees on the list, black willow was proving to be the most difficult.

When I was 12, my dad gave me a book by Kenneth Grahame, the classic children’s book Wind in the Willows. I absolutely loved that book (and still do), letting the full color illustrations inspire my imagination and draw me into its world. My favorite line from one of the color illustration plates always comes to mind when I think of that book.

“Please! Ratty, I want to row!”

Grahame’s story takes place in Great Britain, and the trees he’s referring to are probably weeping willows (Salix babylonica) growing on the banks of the Thames River. Depending on the willow species and whether they are native or not or hybridized (it gets very confusing), they can be considered invasive if not controlled in the landscape. Even so, I love weeping willows. As children we used to swing from the drooping branches like Tarzan (they often broke). I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything!

I was curious to know how black willow is doing since it is native to Minnesota, and was satisfied to learn that this species is prevalent enough not to worry about being crowded out and overtaken by European species of willow. I know now that the sucker sprout my dad and I planted many years ago along the lakeshore of the family cabin in northern Minnesota is a black willow, and it has grown today into a 14” diameter beauty of a tree.

oplars and willows are both in the Willow family (Salicaceae), just under different genera.

Previous was curious to know how black willow is doing since it is native to Minnesota, and was satisfied to learn that this species is prevalent enough not to worry about being crowded out and overtaken by European species of willow. I know now that the sucker sprout my dad and I planted many years ago along the lakeshore of the family cabin in northern Minnesota is a black willow, and it has grown today into a 14” diameter beauty of a tree.

oplars and willows are both in the Willow family (Salicaceae), just under different genera.

“Starting at the Lakeside Pavilion”, white poplar is easy to locate. Black willow (Salix nigra) is second on the list after white poplar, and I’m set on finding it even though it is proving to be quite elusive. I have studied up on willow to help in my search, but am having some difficulty and am relying on the order of the list to aid me. I look back at the pavilion. Black willow prefers moist soils, which makes sense why it is on my dad’s list “starting at the Pavilion”. A huge crack or white willow (or hybrid of the two) grows right there with its lighter yellow-green underside, so that’s not it. Many willows have a very pale underside to their leaves in contrast with the deeper green leaf tops, but black willow on the other hand presents both sides of its leaves as pretty much the same shade of dark green, one very good way to ID them.

Susan Jane and I have just returned from the Kentucky coffeetree area, heading now for the two white poplars growing by the lake. From my recent survey, I show her the one I think will work best. Between us and the two trees, a few feet of underbrush and grasses bush out, but a small path leads to each. One of these white poplars is more visible from the path than the other. We think a tag on that one will entice people in and together we settle on a suitably flat spot. As usual, I proceed to pound in the nails.

I tell her that I’ve spent some time on previous visits to the park searching for the black willow, and am having some difficulty in finding it.

We’re running short on time, so I tell her I’ll return later to keep searching for the black willow along the shore.  She doesn’t know about the backstory of the list or my determination on finding all the trees on it. I plan to locate the black willow later this week and wire the ID sign onto what I’m pretty sure will be a clump of smallish trunks. Based on the false starts I’ve had so far attempting to find it, I know this will occur after quite a bit of bushwhacking through the underbrush. I also know that in my gear and hiking boots I contrast starkly with the dress and demeanor of the urban walkers streaming past me up on the paved path. I studiously ignore them, just as I know they are studiously ignoring me in return. It’s the urban way to get along after all!

With the many and varied common names in use for trees, Latin nomenclature plays an important role in making sure two people are talking about the same species. It’s important, also, as an international language for sharing information, as common names in different languages can be both incomprehensible and unpronounceable. Using the Genus/species name gives those two people specific, familiar identifiers with which to successfully communicate. Latin nomenclature provides a key to the map leading out of the labyrinths and rabbit holes into which common names can lead us.

Blue beech and Ironwood are perfect examples of this.

Blue beech (Carpinus caroliniana) is a sensual tree with sinewy branches, smooth and long-limbed. For this reason it is also called musclewood. Blue beech is also known as American Hornbeam due to the extreme hardness of its wood. To tangle things further, it is also sometimes called ironwood (the tree we met in the previous chapter) again, because of its very hard wood. Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana), on the other hand, is also known as American hop hornbeam. The additional ‘hop’ is due to the fact that its nutlets resemble those of hops, and the ‘hornbeam’ because, again, it is also a very hard wood. If this isn’t confusing enough, I should mention that blue beech is NOT in the beech family at all! At this point, it may come as a relief to know that both species are at least classified into the same family, the birch tree family of Betulaceae. This is because of their catkins, leaves, and the fact that both male and female flowers occur on the same tree, like all birches. Better yet, a very easy way exists for telling the difference between the two species. Simply observe the smooth, sensual bark of the blue beech as opposed to the textured, vertically rectangular plates of the ironwood. These two trees, with all their common name similarities and their Betulaceae family classification, still belong to separate genera.

Towards the end of the morning, Susan Jane and I arrive at the blue beech.

“Susan Jane,” I say directly, “I can’t mar this beautiful, smooth bark by putting a sign on it right in front.”

“Yes,” she agrees, calming me, “we should put it on the side or back.”

“Let’s do the swamp white oak first,” I suggest, needing a little time. That one is easily dispatched, forcing us to retrace our steps the 15 feet or so it takes to return back to the blue beech again. The extra time, however, seems to have solidified things in my mind. We walk around the blue beech tree once more, but we both already know the sign should face the nearby swamp white oak one we’ve just attached.

“They can talk to each other!” we both say almost at the same time.

This is the point at which the nails bend as the extremely hard wood of the blue beech resists my efforts, but it accepts the situation in the end.

Our tagged Eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana) grows in the same area as the blue beech and is much more visible alongside the street and walking trail. An abundant grove thrives here, and the chosen tree shines from all directions. That is why I chose her, because she’s in the prime of life, adorned with an array of gorgeous, ripening cones. I refer to her as ‘she’ because Eastern red-cedar is an example of a plant species whose male and female flowers appear on separate trees. The male trees produce pollen cones that appear much different from the female’s. The fruit of the female juniper resemble tiny blue berries, but they are actually the tree’s female cones, not berries. Small mammals thrive on her fruit along with several bird species who also use the thick foliage for nesting and roosting. Edibility of Eastern red-cedar fruit for humans goes back hundreds of generations, used by the Lakota to flavor meats such as stewing with venison, and are also used in the process of distilling gin – again, as a flavoring. Harvest the berry-like cones when they’re blue and fully mature, from late fall into winter or even spring and you’ll have an interesting culinary seasoning to add to your spice rack. A tea made of the leaves provides a flavorful beverage high in vitamin C.

Eastern red-cedar also offers another example of common names confusing things. Just like our friend, Northern white-cedar, eastern red-cedar is not a true cedar either. The genus name (Juniperus virginiana) reveals that this tree is actually a juniper. I suspect the reason Juniperus continues to be most commonly referred to as a cedar is because of its cedar-like aroma. I still have an Eastern red-cedar log my dad gave me that he found years ago in the park. The tree had fallen, and he’d cut a few logs to take home with him to burn in the fireplace for their aromatic fragrance.

“Maybe you could cut these into coasters,” he said years ago, handing me a rough log, “or aromatic pieces to put in a drawer. Take it home and see what you can do with it.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

Here I am, decades later, “doing something with it”. Besides sawing off a few slices for myself over the years, I’m now learning for myself and educating others about all these scientific names and their meanings. I didn’t know it at the time, but my teacher dad had already begun sharing his legacy with me.


Tree Trek Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Mirocha Ellison. All Rights Reserved.

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