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How to Identify Poplar Trees

Poplar trees are part of the willow family and make useful landscaping trees for many scenarios. As a group, the poplars do best in moist soil. As many as 15 different types exist that are native to North America. Also known as a cottonwood tree, the poplars feature, for the most part, large leaves that often quiver when even a hint of a breeze arises.

Examine the leaves of poplars and distinguish their shapes. Study those of the white poplar, looking for three or five distinctive lobes that make it resemble a maple leaf in its shape. The leaves are usually from 2 to 4 inches long, with green on the top and silver-white on their undersides. Other poplar leaves, like those of the eastern cottonwood and the plains cottonwood, will quickly remind you of the ace of spades from a deck of playing cards.

Listen when the wind blows and you will hear the poplar leaves rustling. Their shape combines with their long stems to create a leaf that the wind will move back and forth in the canopy of the poplar. White poplar leaves, with their silver-white undersides, almost seem to glimmer in the wind.

Look for the fall colors on poplars. One cultivar of white poplar called “Richardii” has leaves that are yellow on their top during the spring and summer. Other white poplars turn reddish in autumn, while eastern cottonwood leaves turn yellow.

Estimate the height of a tree you suspect is a poplar. The average white poplar will fall anywhere between 60 to 100 feet tall, according to the University of Connecticut Plant Database website. However, cultivars like the “Pyramidalis” are shorter, usually well less than 60 feet high. Richardii is also not as tall as the typical white poplar. The eastern cottonwood is able to grow to 100 feet and possesses a much wider trunk than most poplars.

Watch the woods and landscape for the poplar seeds floating on the wind. You will be able to see them as they come off the poplar tree, attached to what looks like a cotton parachute that carries them away from the tree when the capsules containing them burst apart. Poplars are either male or female, with only the female trees producing these seeds.

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