Lombardy poplars once dominated landscape of Boise, Southern Idaho

When the people of young Boise City began to involve themselves in what the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman called “The Tree Mania,” they chose species that were fast-growing and readily available. This usually meant the native cottonwoods that grew abundantly along the banks of the Boise River.

The cottonwoods’ fast growth was a virtue that became a fault. Planted along Boise streets and in people’s yards, they were soon too big for their sites. Moreover, the wood was soft and brittle, and the fluffy cotton for which the tree is named was emitted in clouds by the female trees in spring, becoming a nuisance. The Statesman noted in March 1877 that cottonwood trees were being cut down all over town as “objectionable, now that better varieties have grown to sufficient size to provide shade.” Recommended for planting were the tall and stately Lombardy poplar and several varieties of maple.

In August 1879, the Idaho World reported, “Seventeen months ago Mr. C.S. Kingsley stuck a small Lombarde (sic) poplar twig in the ground in the yard at his residence. It is now eight inches in circumference.”

The Lombardy poplar is named for the Lombardy region of northern Italy, although its more remote origins are the subject of speculation among botanical historians, primarily because it was not introduced into Italy until the 18th century and was unknown to the Romans. The tree became common in temperate regions around the world and was once the most notable tree in the landscape of Boise’s valley. It was planted all across Southern Idaho after irrigation water became available for agriculture and towns such as Twin Falls and Burley were established.

The Statesman reported in June 1882, “The locust trees are blooming about the usual time, notwithstanding the late spring” and followed with: “Boise City may now be said to be in full summer attire. With its numerous shade and fruit trees, few cities on the coast present a more attractive appearance in summer time than does Boise City.”

We have written of the history of fruit trees in earlier columns, and the economic importance of that industry to Boise Valley, and will return to that subject again, but today we are concentrating on the story of our shade trees and how Boise came to be known as “City of Trees.”

In September 1885, the Statesman told its readers: “Our city is overburdened with shade trees. In many places it is like living in a forest. So much timber and so much shade is decidedly unhealthy. The Lombardy poplar is a dirty tree, covered generally at this time of year with little bugs or flies that hop off and get into the houses, so thick they are very annoying and dirty. There are too many of these trees, and it would be better for the city if they were all cut down and made into wood, and other trees planted but not so thick. We need more sunshine. It is far more healthy. We notice that several parties are cutting down these trees, and we are glad to see them do so.”

On June 15, 1886, the paper wrote: “The Lombardy poplar, for many years the only tree planted for shade in Boise City and Valley, are fast being supplanted with maple, elm, box elder, locust, walnut, buckeye and other hard wood trees common to the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys. They are much handsomer and more suitable for shade than Lombardy poplars.”

Many would argue that despite its shortcomings, the tall and slender Lombardy is a beautiful tree and gives a vertical accent to the landscape that Idaho artists like the late Conan Matthews of Boise Junior College found irresistible. I remember well the series of watercolors he painted in the 1950s of Hagerman Valley and its Lombardy poplars.

In April 1887, the Statesman complained that the grounds surrounding the big new territorial Capitol were “unsightly” and needed trees and flowers, for which the Legislature had not provided funding. It suggested that local enterprise take on the job.

In August 1889, the paper reported: “The grounds about the Capitol are rapidly losing their beauty. The leaves are falling and the landscape is returning to an appearance of sagebrush days.” That summer, full-grown shade trees at the Capitol, mostly Lombardy poplars, were cut down “without improving the look of things,” but were necessary to aid the growth of recently planted shade trees of better varieties.