The poplar tree, known as the “tree of the people,” has been appreciated in Italy for its rapid growth, adaptability to different environmental conditions, and valuable wood technological characteristics.
Throughout the centuries, this tree has experienced ups and downs, but it was in the early 20th century that it became the subject of intense genetic improvement activities. Italian poplar breeders carefully selected parent trees to obtain increasingly efficient cultivars, which led to a significant expansion of poplar cultivation in the country.
Currently, Italy cultivates approximately 45,000 to 50,000 hectares of poplar, mainly in the Po River plain on agricultural land. The wood produced is used for various industrial and energy purposes, with a predominant demand in producing plywood panels for the furniture sector, as well as for interiors of trains, caravans, and boats.
The best specimens are allocated to these sectors. Other uses include manufacturing packaging such as boxes for vegetables, fruits, and cheese, as well as the production of pallets, wooden panels, and wood chips for bioenergy. Moreover, there is a growing interest in the use of technologically enhanced components in sustainable construction, such as laminated beams and insulating and sound-absorbing panels.
Populus spp., commonly known as poplar, naturally developed in various species in the temperate zones of the northern hemisphere, from America to China. However, its cultivation has extended to other areas of the southern hemisphere, especially in Argentina. The selected poplar cultivars have demonstrated efficiency in terms of growth and adaptability, providing wood yields comparable to those of other timber species like oak, chestnut, and walnut but in much less time.
Sustainable cultivation of poplar
In recent years, poplar cultivation has experienced a shift in trend due to increased national and international demand for wood. This has led to price hikes and a reversal of the decline in cultivation areas, making it competitive and attractive once again for farmers.
Additionally, increasingly sustainable cultivation systems have been developed through intense research and experimentation. These systems rely on the use of disease- and pest-resistant cultivars, as well as environmentally friendly cultivation practices and models.
These improvements have highlighted the environmental importance of poplar cultivation compared to highly intensive annual agricultural crops. Poplar not only absorbs and stores significant amounts of carbon dioxide in its wood but also contributes to phytoremediation of contaminated waters, soil protection, and prevention of hydrogeological instability, promoting biodiversity and enhancing the landscape.
Advances in poplar genetic improvement in Italy
In Italy, for many years, the most cultivated poplar cultivar has been the so-called ‘I-214’, selected in 1929 by Giovanni Jacometti. Although efficient in terms of growth and adaptability, this cultivar required interventions for disease and pest control.
However, in the last three decades, significant advances have been made in the sector thanks to genetic improvement. These advances have allowed the development of new, more productive poplar cultivars that are resistant to fungal diseases and pests, such as the woolly aphid, without resorting to unauthorized genetic manipulation.
The improved cultivars harness the genetic traits present in different poplar species, enabling more sustainable cultivation with reduced use of chemical treatments. Additionally, they facilitate the adoption of forest certification protocols, such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), demonstrating that the wood has been sourced in a more environmentally respectful manner.
A balance between productivity and environmental respect has been achieved thanks to advances in genetic improvement and sustainable cultivation systems. Poplar cultivation not only offers economic benefits but also contributes to environmental protection, biodiversity conservation, and landscape enhancement. With continued focus on research and innovation, poplar cultivation in Italy promises to continue evolving and offering sustainable solutions for the future.