How to Navigate with Lombardy Poplars

Lombardy poplars in a line

There are three types of tree in any landscape: friends, guests and rebels. Every tree is native, invasive or planted.

Native trees have been part of a landscape for many hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. They are a natural part of the local ecology and host lots of life in an intricate web.

Invasive trees have arrived from overseas, often uninvited, and they host far fewer organisms.

As natural navigators we need the lichens, mosses, galls and insects that native trees host, they are an important part of our map and compass toolkit.

The oak tree is native in the UK, the sycamore is invasive. Given a choice, the natural navigator should head to the oak.

From the Wild Signs and Star Paths book, “A sycamore has 15 associated insects and 183 associated lichens, but an oak has 284 associated insects and 324 associated lichens.”

The ‘Rebel’ tree is one that stands out instantly as being deliberately planted. It is usually an invasive species, but this is less about species, more about human footprints. A rebel tree can be native or invasive, but it sticks out in some way and always tells us we are looking at a designed, not natural landscape.

Wherever we see the human hand behind the choice of tree, it gives us a sign towards civilisation. There is one tree that demonstrates this better than all others. It is known as the Lombardy Poplar, a cultivar of the black poplar.

It is a tall, skinny and striking tree, one of the few that is easy to recognise from miles away and even from an aircraft. They are usually planted in a line, which makes them even easier to spot from afar. See the top photo for a good example.

These poplars are planted for aesthetic and practical reasons, like shade or shelter. But they always signify buildings nearby. They mark the edge of towns, villages of farmsteads on our sensory map.

Once you know them, you’ll start to spot them without trying. And then they act like giant neon signs in the landscape, pointing to hidden buildings nearby.

The pictures below show how this works. They are all of the same two Lombardy poplar trees, seen from varying angles and distances.

A pair of Lombardy polars in the distance.
(Notice also how the willows on the left are are marking the river.)
Getting a little closer.
The same pair of Lombardy poplars, seen from a similar distance but from the opposite direction.
And then, closer up, we see what these trees always reveal: civilisation.
Here the Lombardy poplars are revealing the ‘invisible’ location of a small village, from the sea.

They like full sun, so are more likely on the southern side of larger towns or villages.


For more on this see the book, Wild Signs and Star Paths.

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