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Poplar & Aspen Trees (Populus):
The Best Facts That You Want to Know.

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We use many common names to identify the Populus genus. Dependent on your location, many refer to them as poplars or aspens. All in all, there are 57 species in the genus. Growing in the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, the aspen tree enjoys cooler climates.

Overall, they grow to be less than 100 feet tall and grow in colonies with other aspen trees. Aspen trees spread the colony by root suckers sprouting. In fact, the roots intertwine and extend to all new aspens in the colony. While the individual tree lives for 150 years, the root systems continue long after the original trees die. The tree colony survives many possible traumatic events, from windstorms to wildfires because of the deep root system below the surface and the ability to grow from small shoots.

Finally, the aspen tree is a tall, but narrow tree. The canopy grows near the top of the trunk to collect as much sunlight as possible. The younger aspen trees grow best on the outskirts of the colony because of that high demand for sunlight.

So How Many Kinds of Poplar & Aspen Trees are There?

There are 57 species in the Populus genus. Also, the botanists divide the genus into six sections. The sections are Populus, Aigeiros, Tacamachaca, Leucoides, Turanga, and Abaso. The Populus genus is part of the Salicoideae family.

Altogether, it may be easy to confuse the aspens with the birches because of the white bark. However, there are notable differences between the two genera. The peelable white bark in a feature only of the birch tree. On the other hand, the aspen leaves are perfectly flat.

Some trees species in each section are:

Populus section Populus

  • White poplar (Populus alba)
  • Common aspen (Populus tremula)
  • Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides)

Populus section Aigeiros

  • Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides)
  • Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii)
  • Black poplar (Populus nigra)

Populus section Tacamahaca

  • Balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera)
  • Simon’s poplar (Populus simonii)
  • Korean poplar (Populus koreana)

Populus section Leucoides

  • Downy poplar (Populus heterophylla)
  • Chinese necklace poplar (Populus lasiocarpa)
  • Wilson’s poplar (Populus wilsonii)

Populus section Turanga

  • Euphrates poplar (Populus euphratica)
  • Tana River poplar (Populus illicfolia)

Populus section Abaso

  • Mexico poplar (Populus mexicana)

How Large Do Poplar & Aspen Trees Grow?

Most aspen trees grow between 50 and 100 feet in height. Overall, the aspen will grow to a spread of 20 to 30 feet. With a quick growth rate, aspens will climb 2 feet per year. The diameter of the trunk is rather small despite the height. Notably, the diameter is less than 18 inches and can be as narrow as 3 inches.

What Does a Poplar or Aspen Tree Look Like?

The aspen tree wears a beautiful white or dark gray bark. It is a smooth bark in youth but becomes fissured with maturity. That being said, it stands out amongst the wood line, but may be confused with the birch tree. All in all, they are tall, lean trees with most of the canopy at the top of the tree.

aspen tree bark

The seeds seen flying from the aspens in early summer are tiny white tufts. When the seeds are released, it almost looks like snow in the middle of June.

aspen catkin

 The leaves of the aspen tree are smooth and perfectly flat. Most often, they are round with a point at the end. The leaves turn a beautiful golden color in autumn that creates a striking sight with the white bark. Altogether, the leaves have a unique attachment angle to the stems. This results in them to rustle very easily. In fact, the slightest breeze can send an aspen tree “quaking”.

aspen leaves scaled

Leaves of the green tree (Transportation and Traffic) leaves,road,branch,green,tree,aspen

 You will usually find the aspen trees growing in a colony, connected by an underground root system for support.

Where Can I Find a Poplar or Aspen Tree?

In North America, aspen trees grow from coast to coast, but entirely in the northern portion. In fact, most of the population grows in Canada. However, thanks to the cooler climates of the mountain ranges, you will find some aspen colonies further south. Aspens even grow in many parts of Alaska. The largest population grows in Utah and Colorado.

 In Europe, the aspen is widespread. Growing across most of the continent, the aspen dominates the landscape. For sure, the aspen grows from the northern-most parts to the southern-most and from the western side to the eastern side.

 Like the other continents, many aspens call the northern portions of Asia home. Some parts of Japan, China, and Korea also grow aspen trees.

How Long Can a Poplar or Aspen Tree Live?

We estimate the oldest fossil of an aspen tree to be almost 60 million years old. Ultimately, most individual aspens in the colony will live until 150 years old. However, the colony lives much longer than the initial tree. Without a doubt, aspen trees live longer and persist through tougher conditions when in the colony. Individual trees do not have the same root system to depend on.

Aspen trees are plagued by insects and fungi, causing the untimely death of these trees.

Can I Grow a Poplar or Aspen Tree?

It is very difficult to start an aspen tree from a seed and so it is best purchasing a sapling from a local nursery. Your sapling will need the moistest soil that is not waterlogged and ample sunlight. Once established, your aspen will tolerate drought well with just as little watering from you.

The best time to plant your sapling is in spring after the last the frost. All in all, this will give your sapling as much time as possible to establish a good root system for the drier summer. Water your sapling through the first growing season.

Plan the location ahead of time. Your aspen will do its best to produce other aspens and grow the colony. Within a few years, you will have several small aspens growing. If you plan to only grow one aspen, you will need to remove shoots yearly. Most species do not tolerate intense heat well. Overall, this is a cold-hardy species.

It is Time to BRANCH out into some fun tree facts.

  • The root systems of aspen colonies live for thousands of years.
  • The young aspen trees grow from the trunks of old, deceased trees.
  • Aspen trees help rebuild ecosystems after a forest is destroyed.

What Are Some Uses for Poplar and Aspen Trees?

Natural Uses

Many ancient cultures used the bark and leaves of the aspen for medicinal purposes. These parts of the tree treat joint pain, prostate pains, nerve pain, and bladder problems. Notably, aspen trees contain salicin, which is a common ingredient in aspirin.

Many animals depend on the aspen for sustenance. For humans, the sap layer under the bark is edible in both cooked and raw forms. Ancient cultures consider the sweet portion to be a treat.

Scientists are converting poplar into sugars to produce biofuel.

The branches and trunks were used to build lodges and homes.

Artistic Uses

Poplar was the popular choice throughout Italy for panel paintings. As a matter of fact, the Mona Lisa is on poplar.

With its ancient history, aspen trees are in numerous folklore and cultural adaptions. Billie Holiday sings of the quaking poplar trees in “Strange Fruit”.

There is a lot of folklore around the quaking of the aspen. One legend states that the aspen did not honor the great spirit and so it was doomed to quake for the rest of its days. Other cultures believe that a crown of aspen leaves will give you the power to visit the Underworld and return to the living.

Artists adore the golden color of the aspen tree in autumn, especially with the white bark. It is a perfect addition to any landscape portrait.

Residential/Commercial Uses

The wood is lightweight and does not produce a strong odor. Overall, it is an excellent choice for light crates, boxes, and baskets.

Instruments made from the wood of aspen trees make unique musical instruments. The sound of many stringed instruments carries a resonant tone.

The wood is soft while still holding great strength. Oftentimes, we use it for matches, toys, chopsticks, and saunas. Manufacturers turn aspen trees into toothpicks and even paper.

Wrap Up

Aspen is an excellent tree for many applications, from paper pulp to chopsticks. Many cultures hold intense feelings about the shaking and quaking leaves. In fact, the leaves grow at such a peculiar angle that the leaves rustle with the smallest breeze. With 57 species, this is a relatively small genus.

Overall, the trees grow to medium height, topping off around 100 feet. What is unique about these trees besides the rustling leaves, they also grow in a colony with other aspen trees. For sure, the trees connect root systems together to make a super colony of aspens. This connectivity makes them stronger and able to withstand significant challenges such as wildfires. Finally, the young trees depend on the fallen trees for the perfect place to grow.

You can grow an aspen sapling with relative ease with enough sunlight and water but be wary of the colony growing around it.

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