The Advantages and Disadvantages of Hybrid Poplar

Pros and Cons of planting hybrid poplar trees illustration

Treehugger / Hilary Allison

A "hybrid" plant is produced when pollen of one species is used to fertilize flowers of another species. A hybrid poplar is a tree resulting from the combining, either naturally or artificially, of various poplar species into a hybrid.

Hybrid poplars (Populus spp.) are among the fastest-growing trees in North America and well suited for certain conditions. Poplar hybrids are not desirable in many landscapes but can be of major importance under certain forestry conditions.

Should I Plant a Hybrid Poplar?

A large Cottonwood Poplar Tree.

Bill Longstaff / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

It depends. The tree can be effectively used by tree farmers and large property owners under certain conditions. Most hybrid poplars are a landscaping nightmare when grown in yards and parks. The populus species are susceptible to fungal leaf spots that defoliate trees by late summer. The poplar tree is extremely susceptible to a devastating canker and dies an ugly death in just a few years. Still, poplar just may be the most planted ornamental tree in America.

Where Did the Hybrid Poplar Come From?

A woman looking at hybrid poplars in a greenhouse.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Members of the willow family, hybrid poplars are crosses between North America's cottonwoods, aspens, and Europe's poplars. Poplars were first used as windbreaks for European fields and hybridized in Britain in 1912 using a cross between European and North American species.

Planting hybrid poplar for profit started in the 1970s. Forest Service's Wisconsin lab led in U.S. hybrid poplar research. The Poplar has restored its reputation by offering a new source of alternative fuels and fiber.

Why Grow Hybrid Poplar?

Close up of leaves on a Cottonwood Poplar tree.

Douglas Sacha / Getty Images

  • Hybrids grow six to ten times faster than similar species. Tree farmers can see economic returns in 10 to 12 years.
  • Hybrid poplar research has reduced the disease problems. There are now commercially available disease-resistant trees.
  • Hybrids are easy to plant. You can plant an unrooted dormant cutting or "stick."
  • Growth off stump sprouts insures future trees with little or no planting costs.
  • There is an ever-increasing list of primary uses being developed for hybrid poplar.

What Are the Primary Commercial Uses of Hybrid Poplar?

A pulp mill with piles of lumber and pulp.

Josef Mohyla / Getty Images

  • Pulpwood: There is an increasing need for aspen for the production of wood products in the Lake States. Hybrid poplar may be substituted here.
  • Engineered Lumber Products: Hybrid poplar can be used in the process of making oriented strand board and, possibly, structural lumber.
  • Energy: Burning wood does not increase atmospheric carbon monoxide(CO). The hybrid poplar absorbs as much CO over its lifetime as is given off in burning so it "mitigates" amount of CO given off.

What Are Alternative Uses of Hybrid Poplar?

Rows of Hybrid poplars grown for commercial use.

Oregon Department of Forestry / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Hybrid poplar is extremely beneficial in ways not directly profitable. Property owners can stabilize stream banks and agricultural lands by planting and encouraging hybrid poplar growth. Windbreaks of poplar have protected fields in Europe for centuries. In addition to protecting soil from wind erosion, the windbreaks protect livestock and humans from cold winds and increase wildlife habitat and aesthetics.

Phytoremediation and the Hybrid Poplar

A willow tree in a field against a blue sky.

japatino / Getty Images

In addition to the above values of hybrid poplar, it makes an excellent "phytoremediator." Willows and specifically hybrid poplar have the ability to take up harmful waste products and lock them away in their woody stems. Municipal and corporate institutions are becoming more and more encouraged by new research showing the benefits of planting hybrid poplar to naturally clean up toxic waste.