Editor’s note: After seeing an ag discussion online regarding something called a popple, I turned to our resident expert, Jason Maloney, a retired program manager with the USDA Forest Service who has no training or experience in forestry but who knows people who do. He agreed to take on the difficult task of a popple hunt for our readers.
The Popple tree of the Midwestern United States is similar to the elusive Jackalope, an animal said to inhabit the Great Plains. It was at one time possible to purchase mounted Jackalope heads from advertisements in sporting magazines. Those ads have since moved online.
The similarity between those two regional rural pooka-like occurrences is that when discussing them and pronouncing their names – Popple and Jackalope – it’s best to have the tongue of the speaker firmly planted within the inside of the cheek.
In Wisconsin young people once made money by peeling Popple logs for loggers, who then sold the logs to paper mills. The mills processed the logs to make pulp, from which various types of paper were made. That paper was shipped all around the world. Those of us who grew up on farms seldom peeled popple. We had farm chores like picking rocks, planting, milking and harvesting. The farm I grew up on had many rocks. Some years it seemed like our most plentiful crop was rocks.
Popple trees grow throughout the northern parts of the Midwest. Experts on the trees are often found in rural bars and cafes. If a person meets one of those experts and inquires about popple trees, he or she will be branded as someone from out of the area. But because of the general congeniality of people in the Midwest, often called “Midwestern Nice,” it’s likely a local expert will answer the question. The truth is that the popple tree is several trees. It can be any of the aspens. It can be a poplar. In some places it can even be a birch.
Some people trace the word popple to foreign roots. Type the word poplar into Google Translate and ask for Swedish. The word for poplar in Swedish is poppel. So it’s possible the term popple came from that Swedish word for poplar. It could be said that popple came from poppel and is now a popular word for poplar. But really some things are better left unsaid.
Though there are many bars full of experts in Wisconsin, sometimes it’s good to seek advice and counsel in other venues. Jonathan Martin is an associate professor of forestry at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. He agreed to discuss the popple puzzle. Located on the southern shore of Lake Superior, Northland College is about as far north as one can go in Wisconsin without swimming in Lake Superior.
Martin said the term popple lumps several species of trees together.
“When you are in the woods working on a timber harvest, and you see that white bark and white stems, and you aren’t looking at the leaves, people say it’s popple,” he said. “It’s sold by the cord and goes into the pulp stream.
“There are also hot spots of Norway pine talk, which is actually red pine. In early survey notes you read black pine, which might actually be jack pine. They also used a term like ground hemlock, which I think might really be Canada yew.”
Colloquial tree names appear to proliferate in the northern Midwest. Tourists and travelers who come to Wisconsin will likely see popple trees. They grow all over the place up here.
Like the elusive Jackalope, the Popple tree exists – but it won’t be found in a forestry class or in a science text. Instead it’s part of the language, life and stories of folks who live in the rural Midwest.