No one knows for sure what Dr. Ernst Schriner of Durham, N.H., had on his mind when he crossed some impressive-looking ``weeds,'' as his friends called them, back in the '30s, but the results have probably gone way beyond anything he envisioned. Right now the clones of those early crosses are being turned into fine printing papers on the one extreme and hamburger extender on the other. They are also helping to stabilize mine-spoil banks, heat homes, shade trailer parks, form privacy screens, and produce fuel alcohol. They even may soon help clean up the Chesapeake Bay. To hear Morton S. Fry tell it, ``Even the tip of the iceberg is barely showing.''
Mr. Fry is talking about ``super poplars,'' the trees his family grows, sells, uses, and promotes at every opportunity, all because of an ad that appeared in Farm Journal magazine in the fall of 1954. The ad said simply that the Northeast Forest Experiment Station would supply eight cuttings of hybrid poplars to anyone who would report back annually on their growth. The cost: $1.
The ad caught the attention of Miles Fry, Morton's father, who sent off his dollar. When the unrooted sticks duly arrived and were planted alongside the walls of the Frys' old smokehouse in March 1955, all but one cutting rooted and grew. By October the tops of the young trees were brushing the eaves of the building with trunks ``as straight as a plumb line,'' to quote Morton Fry. They had grown from 10 inches to 10 feet in a mere seven months, and the senior Mr. Fry knew he had a winner.
Those first seven trees provided more cuttings, and pretty soon a small plantation of young trees was thriving on what had formerly been pastureland for the family's dairy business. Finding uses for the fast-growing trees became a preoccupation with the Frys.
They began by selling 10-foot-long whips to Bethlehem Steel for placing explosives in the company's Grace mine. They learned firsthand how readily a cut poplar regenerates by sending up new growth from the old stump. Moreover, the second growth was much more vigorous than the first because the tree had an established root system. This way the same tree cut for a blasting pole quickly grew another tree, and another, and another.
From blasting poles the Frys began promoting the poplars as quick-growing and handsome shade trees. Planted at eight-foot intervals they formed privacy screens more rapidly than any other type of shade tree. Clipped and trimmed, they made a dense hedge that lost its leaves in winter but still formed an impressive barrier to blowing snow.
Later trials showed how easily the poplar established itself on mine-spoil dumps, sanitary landfills, and other waste areas. It seemed to the Frys that you couldn't lose with the tree, however you used it. In the intervening years the poplars have helped turn ``many eyesores into attractive wildlife habitats,'' says Mr. Fry.
Proposed plantings of poplars in a three-county area would trap and reduce the amount of agricultural pollution pouring into the Chesapeake. The trees, in turn, would be harvested and used in electric-power generation.
The once-despised popple that numbers the aspen and the cottonwood in its family now is used for interior framing studs. (Penn State University's forestry department concludes that it has characteristics similar to Pennsylvania white pine.) It has also proved itself as a pulp source in the making of fine printing papers -- the Canadian company Domtar in Cornwall, Ontario, grows poplars for this purpose. When chipped it is formed into particle board or ``aspenite'' and fed directly into boilers or included with sewage sludge in city composting operations. Philadelphia, no longer able to dump its sewage at sea, is adding wood chips to its sludge to get the right composting mix and selling the final product. A small wood gassification plant even turns chipped poplars into electricity on the Frys' farm. Apart from its landscaping value, homeowners are most interested in the poplar's ability to fuel the home fires. Trials undertaken by the Frys show that one acre under poplars could grow all the fuel (up to 5 cords a year) for a home on an almost indefinite basis. While poplar itself has less btu's per cord (about 2/3 that of oak), the speed of its growth enables it to outproduce oak in energy value on an annual basis.
To start your own energy plantation you would plant a quarter of an acre of poplar cuttings at six-foot spacing every year for four years. Thereafter you would harvest a quarter of an acre each year starting with the four-year-old trees. The cut trees would regrow and be ready for harvesting four years later and so on. Trials suggest that this regeneration should continue for between 16 and 20 years.
Much research in the West recently has gone into producing cattle feed from poplar leaves, which are particularly rich in protein. The Soviets, in fact, have been producing stock feed this way for many years. Some 100,000 tons of what they call Muka (processed poplar) is fed to cattle there every year.
More exotic research comes from Dibyendu Roy at the University of Toronto's faculty of forestry. He converts poplar leaves into an almost pure protein that can be used as a meat extender in hamburger or as an enrichment in any one of a number of food products.
Meanwhile, whatever the preferred use for the tree, Morton Fry wants to see many more grown. There are some 500 million acres of sub-par agricultural land in the United States, including landfills and mine-spoil dumps, that would be ideally suited to poplars. ``Remember,'' he says, ``this is not a tree you plant for your grandchild to enjoy, it's one that grows big in your own time.''
For more information on how to use poplars, write to Miles W. Fry & Son Inc., Frysville, RD 3, Ephrata, Pa. 17522. Another supplier of hybrid poplars is Spring River Nurseries, Spring River Road, Hartford, Mich. 49057.