What it is
Mat-heh Metoos is the Cree name of a valuable but ‘rough-looking’ tree also known as Ugly Poplar, Black Poplar, Balsam Poplar, Balm-of-Gilead, Black Cottonwood, and Populus balsamifera (or Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa, or even Populus candicans Ait.). Sometimes, in some regions it is also called Tacamahac (a Mesoamerican inspiration), or is referred to as the ‘northernmost American hardwood,’ meaning it is deciduous. As trees go, Mat-heh Metoos is hardy and fast-growing, but relatively short lived. Nevertheless, some trees as old as 135–200 years have been found.
~ •• ♦ •• Recipe Links for Mat-heh Metoos •• ♦ •• ~
Mat-heh Metoos Buds: for medicinal chews, teas, drops, and ointments
Mat-heh Metoos Inner Bark: for soaps and balms
Mat-heh Metoos Wood: for fuel, cleansers, and pipes
Where to find
Mat-heh Metoos can be found growing trans-continentally on boreal and montane upland and flood plain sites. The tree is common at Red River Settlement, but confined to certain areas. Mat-heh Metoos prefers sites that can readily supply its high nutrient requirements, especially for calcium and magnesium. Relatively small, localized stands attain the best development on local flood plains, preferring moist soil that is sandy and gravelly, and able to form adventitious roots within a few days of a flood. It is not tolerant, however, of deep acidic peats and humus with a slow release of nutrients. It will not tolerate stagnant and brackish water.
How to recognize
The winter silhouettes above show both Western and Eastern balsam poplars [respectively: the narrower-crowned Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa] and the wider-crowned Populus balsamifera L.] Mat-heh Metoos can grow up to 100 ft high (30 m), with a trunk of 3–6 ft (1–2 m) in diameter and with stout, spreading branches. The bark is greenish grey at the top, becoming progressively more grey in descending to the deeply furrowed base.
Poplar species will hybridize with each other, so tree forms vary across Turtle Island, but all Mat-heh Metoos are recognizable by their smell—the buds being resinous and aromatic (balsamifera from L. ‘balsam bearing’/ ‘yielding or producing a fragrant resin’). The tree gives off the characteristic fragrance most strongly in spring as the buds flower into catkins, the leaves appear, and the fruit develops.
The winter buds are large and curved with a sticky balsam-smelling resin. Flowers develop from the buds before the leaves expand in the spring—small flowers clustered together as dense catkins, with pistillate and staminate flowers on different trees.
Leaves are alternate and simple, ranging from oval to heart-shaped, but are sharp-pointed with rounded teeth, 7.5–15.0 cm long. The leaves are shiny dark green above and pale green beneath. In the fall the they turn blackish, hence the name ‘black poplar.’
The fruit—a dry, greenish-brown capsule—opens when mature, releasing seeds that are very small, numerous, and hairy. The white hairs float mature seeds through the air and, on landing, coat the ground below like cottony snow.
The roots are shallow, especially on wet soils, which makes the tree susceptible to windthrow.
Bees (including honey bees) use balsam resin for propolis—a known antibiotic—used to seal their hives against winter and intruders.
Many animals, including rodents, hares, beaver, moose, deer, elk, and ruffed grouse, eat the twigs and bark.
Insects also eat the tree, including the poplar and willow wood borer (Cryptorhynchus lapathi), poplar borer (Saperda calcarata), and bronze poplar borer (Agrilus liagrus). And the leaves are food for caterpillars of various Lepidoptera along with forest tent caterpillars, the satin moth, grey willow leaf beetle, and aspen leaf beetle. The insects, in turn, provide food for birds such as woodpeckers, orioles, chickadees, jays, warblers, grosbeaks, and waxwings.
By the 21st century Mat-heh Metoos will be used for wind-break planting and be regarded as important to agroforestry and to riparian rehabilitation. Hybrids of poplar will be used in plantations and for biomass conversion (removing carbon dioxide from the air as part of atmospheric greenhouse gas reduction). In 2015, the value of Mat-heh Metoos will be commemorated with a Canadian $20 silver coin.