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It takes a wise man to learn from his mistakes, but an even wiser man to learn from others'.
-- Zen Proverb

Native Poplars

Balsam Poplar & Trembling Aspen

We have two native poplars in our part of Alberta, balsam poplar, and trembling aspen. Their habitats overlap, with Balsam being found on flood plains, creekside, and in snow traps. Aspen tend to more upland sites away from the water.

Balsam Poplar (Populus Balsamifera)

Mature Balsam Poplar in Early Spring

This Balsam Poplar is about 80-100 years old.

Balsam poplar is one of two common poplar in our region. This is our resident 'big tree.' I have one in back of my house that is close to 90 feet tall and over 3 feet across at the stump. I am not looking forward to turning into firewood. Big chunks to horse around.

Balsam need water -- lots of water. Commonly they are found near streams and in the low plains near the river. A large poplar will transpire 300 litres of water on a warm summer day. When landscaping for poplar, it's best to create a swale or gentle sided ditch so that natural runoff is toward the tree. They are one of the few trees that can tolerated saturated soil for long periods of time.

Balsam poplar can be planted to good effect on either side of a lane or driveway, but set them back 20 feet from the centre.

There is a system for septic fields now that uses 'water pump' trees to pull excess water from the black water. I sold a bunch of poplar to an acreage owner near Drayton Valley who was doing this.

This tree can be dangerous if grown by the house. A ton of tree falling from 80 feet has more impact than a piano. They will usually let you know some years before they fall. You'll see more dead twigs in the crown. When you see whole dead branches, it's time to take it down and use it for firewood. I have one that was hit by lightning last summer and has a spiral fracture line running from crown to root. Alas the house is in reach, so it's coming down this summer.

This tree is NOT suitable for a city lot. It gets too big. Its roots are close to the surface, and have an awesome power to move sidewalks, and crack driveways. Your neighbours will not thank you. (It could be the right gift for someone you don't like...)

Even on a country estate I would suggest a minimum of 40 feet away from the house, and a similar distance from concrete and paving.

Mixed Poplar in Fall

This is my driveway. The corner here has a mix of balsam poplar and trembling aspen.

Aspen Poplar (Populus tremuloides)

This is the other native poplar. Often called trembling aspen, or quaking aspen. Aspen leaves are small, about quarter to loonie sized. The petiole (leaf stem) is very thin for a leaf this size, so the leaves move in the slightest breeze.

Aspen is fast growing, and is ideally suited as a tree to alternate with spruce when planting rows. The aspen will provide interest during the ten years or so it takes the spruce to become noticeable. With water and light spring fertilizer application they will grow three to four feet per year.

Trembling aspen in Fall Colours

Trembling aspen in Fall Colours.


Aspen are small enough to be reasonably safe close to the house. Sure if they fall on the house in a wind, they will bend the gutters, and may remove a shingle or two, but they won't come crashing through the roof. (I had an uncle who had a big cottonwood next to the house, in a climate where winters were light, so houses weren't made for big snow loads. Smashed the bedroom flat. His wife was not impressed.)

Consider a small clump (3 or 5) next to a water feature in your yard.

Located outside a window, aspen sounds like running water.

Pale bark makes a striking contrast to dark needled evergreens.

Fall colour is a clear yellow, some years shading to pink.

Aspen are short lived, although regular watering will help. Typically they will only last 30 to 50 years. They also shed twigs in heavy wind. Most of these are small enough to be mulched by your lawn mower.

Probably more than you want to know. 270 pages of dense reading. Your Taxes at work. Natural History of Aspen and Balsam Poplar


Got something to say? Email me: sfinfo@sherwoods-forests.com

Want to talk right now? Talk to me: (8 am to 9 pm only, please) 1-780-848-2548


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Copyright © 2008 - 2017 S. G. Botsford

Sherwood's Forests is located about 75 km southwest of Edmonton, Alberta. Please refer to the map on our Contact page for directions.