I really enjoyed drawing this part of the poplar tree. I’d never looked that closely at a poplar before and didn’t realise how sticky the balsam is or how sweetly it smells. I highly recommend drawing it.
The other day I went into the garden to plant poplar tree sticks. They are sticks left over at the end of a botany class. I took loads of different sticks and put them in water in a tall glass jar. Their buds sprouted into leaves which I’ve been drawing, and amazingly the poplar sticks have started to grow roots. It gives off lots of very sticky sweet smelling treacle like substance, the balsam. I dug three holes in the garden, two near the fence where an old tree used to be, and one over the other side in the shade. I’ve no idea if they will grow, but it seems a shame not to give them a go now they have started rooting.
The treacle substance can be turned into a balm. It used to be very poplar with the witches for its flying properties. Poplar balsam was used in flying potions. I read that if I smear it all over my naked body and get on my broomstick I will be able to fly far and wide through the night sky. Smeared on certain parts of the body prior to ritual or meditation it can help with astral projection.
The wild poplar is very rare in Britain now, though it used to be native. There are many cultivated varieties though which can often be seen in parks. There is a phantom tree planter who has spent the last 30 years going round Britain planting Black Poplar trees where ever he sees a bit of space. He doesn’t bother getting permission, well then he wouldn’t be a phantom would he.
Black Poplars can grow to 30 metres tall and live 200 years. They grow very quickly and are best suited to damp marshy landscapes. The bark is a dark brown often appearing black. The leaves are triangular shaped and tremple and quiver in the wind, often sounding like they are singing, it was said that this is the tree praying.
Male and female catkins of the Poplar grow on different trees (dioecious), the female catkins are yellowish green, the male catkins are red and it used to be said that these red catkins, once fallen, were Devil’s fingers and bring bad luck if picked up.
Once fertilised the female catkins turn into fluffy seeds which fall in late summer, very attractive but difficult to draw.
Poplar wood was used to make shields by the Celts, and seen as very protective. The black poplar is sacred to Hecate, the death goddess. There was once a tradition of burying lamb’s tails under newly planted poplar trees at lamb docking time, as a sacrifice to the goddess of death.
It is the sticky balsam that most interests me at the moment. Its origins are explained in the Greek legend where Phaethon asks his father Helios, god of the sun, if he can drive his chariot of the sun across the heavens one day. He was not very successful at this, he did not have the strength to control the horses and the chariot was taken off course, taking the sun so close to the earth it nearly burnt. Zeus was very cross with this and killed Phaethon with a bolt of lightning. Phaethon’s sisters, who had helped convince their father to let Phaethon drive the chariot, saw his death and weeped so bitterly that the gods decided to turn them in to Poplar trees and their tears to amber tears formed by the oozing balsam.
The balm made from these tears has been used for many medical purposes such as rheumatism, gout, coughs and colds, but I’m going to use it for flying! One warm night this summer I’ll be venturing out to find a suitable black poplar, lying under it’s singing branches, covered in sticky balm I will go into a trance and I shall astral project myself to who knows where. Unfortunately I probably won’t be sky clad, as crowded London doesn’t lend itself to such freedom.