This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
Were I disposed to solemnize, after the fashion of Natty Bumppo, in the midst of the Catskills, while gazing alone from one of its topmost peaks far away down into the broad valley of the Hudson at the "wasty ways" of the white man, I might commence this, my homily, with the profound remark, that "man is a capricious animal I" Even so, as applied to the ornamental verdure wherewith he should surround his dwelling, or decorate his grounds. Forty odd years ago - I was a boy then - the pleasant village near which I was nurtured, in the charming valley of the Connecticut, had some of its pleasant homes and cleanest streets planted with the Lombardy poplar. They threw up their clean, straight stems, and trembling sugar-loaf tops far above the great elms which swung their branches in hoary majesty around, them, and with the tall spire of the white meeting house, gave the town a cheerful, happy look, such as it has never worn since the "better taste" of the good people there have cut them all away and supplied their places with locust, alianthus, and maples. Nor am I disposed to find fault with the ephemeral, cockneyfied character of the two first of these, while I yield to no one else in my real admiration of the other.
But I never could divine the reason why the cheer-ful native of sunny Lombardy should be so remorselessly cat away at the bidding of a capricious will, when it really has so much of intrinsic beauty in itself, and appropriately applied, gives such picturesque variety to groups of the round-headed trees in its immediate vicinity. Yet it has been swept utterly out of existence in many localities, and scarce one of our professional landscape-gardeners, or writers, much more our tree-raisers, have the moral courage, or true taste to recommend its propagation, or to cultivate it in their grounds.
It is now the twelfth day of November. The soft haze of our Indian summer has been floating around us for a week. One after another the yellow, red, and russet leaves from the various trees in the lawn and adjacent forests, have fallen silently to the ground; and left their limbs bare as in mid-winter; while from the window at which I sit, looking out upon the clear, sweeping Niagara, and on to the opposite Canada shore, keeping guard over the cheerful, white-painted dwellings behind them, mixed in with the golden willow, stand hundreds of beautiful Lombardy poplars for miles along, still glorying in the soft yellow tints of their full leafy tops, and cheering up with life and beauty a most delightful landscape. How gracefully, too, they throw their long shadows into the clear water with the sunshine. Yet fashion - capricious, senseless, fussy fashion, calls them vulgar. Not so do I. Spite of fashion, with its caprice and nonsense, the Lombardy poplar is still a graceful, beautiful tree. And I'll tell you why.
Not in stiff, formal rows, like a line of grenadiers with shouldered arms, guarding an outpost; or in naked, stake-like regularity lining an avenue; but shooting up their taper heads here and there among other trees, like the tall spires of churches among wide blocks of houses, giving variety, point, and character to a finished picture.
The Lombardy poplar, like the cottonwood, is a universal tree. It grows in all our climates alike, from the lagoons of the Gulf of Mexico to the northern extremities of the upper lakes. It grows from the slip. Cut off a branch large as your arm, and plant it two feet in any kind of a soil, no matter how sterile, short of a dead swamp, and it will grow with great rapidity and vigor. In ten years, with no care or pruning, it becomes a stately tree forty feet high. What tree will do the like? It is a clean tree. Its roots throw up no suckers. Worms and vermin seldom molest it - less even than many of those esteemed most ornamental. It is a conspicuous landmark, in elevated spots, indicating, miles away, the spot you wish to reach. You are told that when old, its limbs decay, and it becomes ragged, and repulsive to the sight. Then cut the top down to half a dozen prongs, a dozen feet from the ground. No other tree but a willow will stand that. But the poplar heeds it not With a vitality unknown to the greatest favorites, it strikes out anew its numerous upright shoots, and in two years its taper limbs are high in the air, and before you are aware of it, it towers among its fellows as if the saw or the axe had never touched a branch.
It comports fitly with the Italian architecture of our houses - the best of all styles for country buildings. Economical, when dry, it is a good summer fuel. If you doubt it, ask the bakers, or the charcoal men. No wood does better. But I speak of this incidentally, valuing it only as an ornament. Yet with all these good qualities, one may ride a hundred miles through a country boasting fine grounds, and elaborate furnishings, without seeing a single specimen.
Let our tastes become better cultivated, and overcome the narrow prejudice that has banished this once graceful and cherished tree from our grounds; and throw it in, here and there, and all about in miscellaneous companionship with others, and then acknowledge that it has grace and beauty, long life, and enduring foliage. It will throw out its rich, brown clusters of flower buds, when the ground is still filled with frost, and its pea-green leaves open their downy coverts in the earliest spring; it will whisper its grateful rustling music throughout the heats of summer, and cheer you with its soft, yellow garniture till the very frosts of winter cut them down. Ho! then; let us give renewed life to the long-neglected Lombardy poplar.
[With regard to this tree, we can just remember that there was an outcry against it, because it was believed to be infested with the "poplar worm," supposed to be poisonous, we believe unjustly so. Fashion has undoubtedly done the deed, and fashion, in due time, will restore it to its true uses, as it has done the hollyhock, tabooed till Wordsworth made it again a favorite. It is a rule in the composition of landscape, that all horizontal lines should be balanced and supported by perpendicular ones; hence the Lombardy poplar becomes of great importance in scenery when contrasted with round-headed trees. It is admitted by all writers on the material sublime, from Burke to Dugald Stewart, that gradually tapering objects of great height create the emotion of sublimity. These trees may be advantageously planted wherever there is a continuance of horizontal lines, but they should be so arranged as to form a part of those lines, and to seem to grow out of them, rather than to break or oppose them in too abrupt a manner.
In the case of a stable or other agricultural building, where the principal mass extends in length, rather than in height, it would be wrong to plant Lombardy poplars, or other tall fastigiatc trees immediately before the building, but they will have a good effect when placed at the sides, or behind it.
Such trees (fastigiate) should appear in all plantations and belts that are made with a view to picturesque effect, but it is a most dangerous tree to be employed by a planter who has not considerable knowledge and good taste in the composition of landscape. It would make an excellent shelter on the prairies; for a screen from the winds it should be planted close, and the top cut off annually. Its rapidity of growth renders it suitable to half-screen a too staring open view where it is desired to look under the branches. Along the sides of lakes lengthened and pleasing reflections are produced, which, breaking the horizontal gleams of light, not only produce variety and richness, but, by increasing the length of the perpendicular lines formed by the poplars, confer a degree of sublimity on the picture].