Fast-growing, short-rotation forest trees, such as Populus and Eucalyptus, produce large amounts of cellulose-rich biomass that could be utilized for bioenergy and biopolymer production. Major obstacles need to be overcome before the deployment of these genera as energy crops, including the effective removal of lignin and the subsequent liberation of carbohydrate constituents from wood cell walls. However, significant opportunities exist to both select for and engineer the structure and interaction of cell wall biopolymers, which could afford a means to improve processing and product development. The molecular underpinnings and regulation of cell wall carbohydrate biosynthesis are rapidly being elucidated, and are providing tools to strategically develop and guide the targeted modification required to adapt forest trees for the emerging bioeconomy. Much insight has already been gained from the perturbation of individual genes and pathways, but it is not known to what extent the natural variation in the sequence and expression of these same genes underlies the inherent variation in wood properties of field-grown trees. The integration of data from next-generation genomic technologies applied in natural and experimental populations will enable a systems genetics approach to study cell wall carbohydrate production in trees, and should advance the development of future woody bioenergy and biopolymer crops.