Michigan State University has a list of products made from Michigan's forest. The list includes railroad ties and musical instruments, but also surprises such as fast-food bags, cupcake wrappers and IKEA particle board.
It does not include wooden shoes.
But De Klomp Wooden Shoe and Delft Store in Holland, Michigan uses local poplar wood to produce about 1,000 pairs of wood shoes each year.
I recently had the opportunity to visit a neighboring Holland business, Nelis' Dutch Village, which hosts a wood-shoe making demonstration. (Wood shoes are available for purchase at Nelis' Dutch Village, but they are imported from the old country). The demonstration showed how wood shoes were initially carved by hand from blocks of poplar or willow with high moisture content. Although machine production nearly eliminated the shoe-carving trade, the shoes themselves were popular at least through the middle of the 20th century, and are still the footwear choice for some Dutch farmers and fisherman.
So poplars are good for making shoes, but are they good for your landscape?
Michael Dirr calls the poplar a "pest," a "nuisance," and a "liability" in his 1983 "Manual of Woody Landscape Plants." Now it's one thing to denigrate a plant, but it is another thing to denigrate the one who plants it.
And this is what Dirr does, writing, "If anyone plants poplars, they deserve the disasters which automatically ensue."
Christina D. Wood writes that Albany, New York had already not only banned the Lombardy poplar by 1871, it also required removal of existing specimens.
What is the problem with this tree that is still for sale in the nursery catalogues? A clue might be found in the scientific family name. You can see the genus Salix in the family name Salicacaea. Both forms are Latin terms for willow. So willows and poplars are close relatives. So are aspens and cottonwood, whose inferior wood was used for the railroad ties used in prairie locations in the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. But the tulip poplar is in the magnolia family and is not a relative of a true poplar.
While the family is important in the early stages of succession, and can be used for basket-weaving, honey production, and herbal medicine, I cannot think of a single good and sustainable landscape application for poplars or willows.
We had once had a headstrong customer who was not content to do battle with a disastrous poplar hedge whose surface roots and sucker sprouts were taking over the lawn. So planted a corkscrew willow only ten feet from his house. The 20' monster had to be removed after just three years, and the bill to remove and replace the poplar hedge could have bought a small car.
So where should you plant a poplar?
Cut it down and make some shoes.
Joshua Arp is an ISA-certified municipal specialist, Clarks Summit's municipal arborist and an operator of an organic lawn and landscape maintenance business. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.