Black poplars, Roe Plas, St Asaph

link_to_welsh_translationBlack poplars at Roe Plas, St Asaph

Roe Plas, the parkland beside the river Elwy, is notable for its black poplars. You can recognise them from their dark bark, which as the name suggests is almost black. Black poplar is native to the British Isles but is now scarce.

Traditionally the timber, which is off-white, was sought after because of its ability to withstand shocks while also being light. This made it ideal for shields carried by soldiers, and for load-bearing areas of carriages and carts which had to contend with bumpy roads. The trunk’s shape also made it suitable for cruck frames in buildings (where naturally bent timbers formed framework for the sides and roof). In modern times black poplar has even been used for artificial limbs.

Imported and hybrid trees have long since replaced the timber of black poplars, which consequently went into rapid decline. Only c.2,000 mature specimens exist in Britain, of which c.200 are in North-east Wales.

In spring, black poplars produce red catkins. These were once regarded with suspicion. In some areas they were known as the devil’s fingers, and children were forbidden from picking them off the ground as they were thought to bring bad luck.

‘Roe’ in Roe Plas comes from the Welsh word ‘gro’, meaning gravel. It refers to the gravel bank beside the river Elwy in St Asaph. The word changed from ‘gro’ to ‘y gro’(meaning ‘the gravel’), then the common mutation after the definite article took away the ‘g’ to leave ‘y ro’. This can be compared with Rowen (meaning ‘white gravel’), in the Conwy Valley.

With thanks to Prof Hywel Wyn Owen, of the Welsh Place-Name Society

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