In addition to their value for wood products, members of the genus Populus (poplars) provide a range of ecological services, including carbon sequestration, bioremediation, nutrient cycling, biofiltration and diverse habitats. They are also widely used model organisms for tree molecular biology and biotechnology. The sequencing of the poplar genome to an approximately 6x depth adds to a long list of important attributes for research. These include facile transformation, vegetative propagation, rapid growth, modest genome size and extensive expressed sequence tags. Here, we discuss how the genome sequence and transformability of poplar, together with its high levels of genetic and ecological diversity, are enabling new insights into the genetic programs controlling ontogeny, ecological adaptation and environmental physiology of trees.