Quaking Aspen is one of our favorite trees, so there is a lot of information about them...
For the color of its trunk, the beauty of the fall golden color, and the versatility in the landscape design, quaking aspens have become very popular. The birches are widely planted for their white trunks, but aspens are "the other white tree". They are fascinating trees with a lot potential.
Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) is in the Poplar Family, and they are the most widely distributed tree in North America. They range from the northeastern states, all across Canada, in through Alaska, and found throughout the mountains of the western states, and into northern Mexico. They are found in a wide climatic range, with temperatures varying from -78 degrees in winter to over 100 degrees in summer. Aspens are found up to 10,000 foot elevation, where precipitation is as low as 7 inches, and a growing season barely 80 days long. On the other extreme is deep winter snows and areas that get over 50 inches of moisture (mostly snow fall).
The soil conditions also vary from shallow rocky outcrops, to sandy types, to heavy clay. At high elevations, they grow in glacial outwash, shallow rock outcrops, even volcanic cinder cone soils. Much of their range is typically moist peat moss bogs. They are quick to reforest open areas caused from fires, avalanches, or heavy wind blow-downs.
Given favorable growing conditions, full sun, plenty of moisture, a little fertilizer, and a reasonable growing season, the quaking aspen will grow straight and tall very quickly. They do like water, being a poplar, and the shallow roots will spread and send up new sprouts. Sprouting can be discouraged by having a thick mulch layer around the tree. The root sprouting is typically a sunlight induced reaction. Keep them at least ten feet away from any domestic water lines. Heights up to 80 feet or more, and up to 2 feet in diameter can be possible.
Along with root sprouting, a potential drawback with aspens is their relatively short lives, as little as 50 years, but 80 to 90 years is more common. Trees over 100 years can be found as well.
The wood is soft and light, making aspen not the premium choice for the fireplace, although it can be good kindling. Wood-working projects is a popular use, but paper production is the primary use of the tree. In the landscape design, use the tree like you would a birch - anywhere you want lines of white-trunked trees, or in clumps, or anywhere that gets a lot of visual attention. They're called quaking aspen because of the two-toned green leaves that shimmer in the breeze.
White trunks, magnificent fall gold color, an attractive tree throughout the year, makes the quaking aspen a worthwhile tree. Quaking Aspen - "the other white tree".
Quaking Aspens play an important role as a pioneer species throughout its range.
Aspens are poplars, and they are cottonwoods, at least from a genera standpoint, all being in the genus Populus, and belonging to the Willow Family (Salicacae). Of the four species of Aspens, two are native to this country, but the Quakie is by far more popularly planted. Considering this is the most extensively found hardwood in North America, the white bark, shimmering leaves in the wind, and the fall gold color, Aspens get planted nearly nationwide.
They can grow very fast in warmer climates and on better soils, but the colder regions and sub- alpine climates they have a very slow growth. They are found where temperatures dip to -78 degrees, and in places where temperatures can get over 100 degrees. They like abundant water, especially when planted in the drier and warmer areas. And they prefer full sun, but in hotter and drier regions, partial shading is a great benefit.
Many people have asked over the years, but practically all Quakies are started from seed. The technique and success rate of vegetative production is horribly low, despite the ease at which the roots send up new sprouts and suckers. And the seeds are like the cottonwoods, tiny fluffs of cotton that blow all around. The tiny seeds attached to the floating tufts number in the millions per pound, and live such a short time once shed. It is this vast number of seeds that's important in recovering a disturbed patch of forest.
The most annoying characteristic in the ornamental planting of the Aspens is the way the roots spread and new seedlings poke up everywhere. There is a little known secret about this to ponder... Aspens (and probably the other poplars) tend to send up more sprouts with more light and warmth reaching the soil. If you maintain a thick mulch layer all around the tree to help keep soil temperatures cooler, then there will likely be less root spreading and sprouting.
In the landscape design, root spreading and sprouts can be troubling, but in the natural environment, this is how vast forests develop. First seeds blow in and sprout, then its the root spreading that becomes the pockets and hillsides of new Aspen forests. Even two distinctly different trees can become joined as the roots will graft onto each other. And even though the roots are shallow, this mass root-grafting makes them very wind resistant.
One of the great lures of the Rocky Mountains in the autumn is the sight of the fall gold color, clumps here, and masses there. But by examining how and where the Aspens are growing, its interesting to note that where the soils are good and deep, there are vast stands of them. The limiting factor of the spread of Aspens throughout the Rockies, and in other areas, is the soil. Large amounts of rock obviously stops or slows the root spreading, and so does the areas of dry soils and insufficient soil moisture.
The role of the Quaking Aspens in forest succession is one of the pioneer. Like the other fast growing trees, the aspens are among the first trees to have seeds blow into a disturbed site, and survive. Many tree species may have seeds blow into a harvested area, avalanche or windthrown zone, or where a fire has cleaned the forest of debris, but overwhelmingly, its the hardy pioneers that can withstand the increased light and poor nutrient levels. After an avalanche, the surface soil layers are often wiped away, so even Aspen establishment is sparse and may take several decades or more. For trees toppled by wind storms, the soil and nutrients are present, but the increased sunlight may be too much for many trees. And certainly after a fire, some nutrients are present, but much of the soil and biomass nitrogen has been volatilized, which quickly limits the growth of many species.
This is exactly why the pioneer species like the willows, cottonwoods, and aspens produce millions of seeds, so that they can quickly seed-in these vast disturbed sites. And out of the millions of seeds, a tiny fraction may sprout. Once sprouted and becomes established, then the role of the pioneer is to rebuild the soil nutrient levels, particularly the nitrogen. With the fast growth in the full sun, the trees produce large volumes of leaves. The leaves are heavily full of nitrogen, an essential element in the formation of the chloroplasts (the green color). Once the leaves fall in autumn, those nutrients get recycled into the ground, becoming available for other trees and plants. So after a period of time, the soil nutrient levels are restored, and with the help of shading, other trees start to get established.
More than pretty fall colors and white bark, the Aspen occupies a vital role in the forest ecology in vast tracts of North American forests.
Another good Aspen topic to talk about are the insects and diseases that are commonly found, but we'll wait until another time.
Less common to the landscaping and garden markets, the Big-Tooth is a native Aspen, a fast grower, and suitable to plant in the same areas as the Quaking Aspen. The Big-Tooth is (Populus grandidentata), and as the name implies, it has "teeth" on the leaf margins. The Quaking has a fine serrated leaf margin, whereas the Big-Tooth has large serrations. The leaves are larger and will vary from oval to almost roundish in shape. The tree occupies the same type of moist habitat as the other, but the as the tree matures, the bark turns dark gray to brown, with furrows. As a young tree, the bark is greenish to gray, not really a white-tree, like its cousin.
These also grow to 30 to 60 feet, depending on growing conditions, and they also prefer full sun and adequate soil moisture to grow best. The Big-Tooth makes a good shade tree, or plant them in lines, clumps, or by themselves. A narrow top that gets rounded with age, and the branches are sturdier than its relative. This tree is a good one for the colder zones (down to Zone 2), but plantable in the more favorable climates as well (Zone 8, and maybe into 9 with partial shading).
Something nice, the Big-Tooth Aspen is a tree can become as popular as its cousin.
Generally, the Aspens (and most trees) are ship best from October through early Spring. Best shipped when dormant, and outside of this time period, they can be iffy... Take delivery early! Temporarily plant the trees in pots (or clumped together) and hold them in the garage or other protected area until 'your' conditions are ready to plant. This way, the trees arrive dormant and are held in dormancy pending your climate warming up. Then they are better acclaimated and immediately available! Think about it... plan on it. Any questions, do ask us...
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Last Update: 10/11/2014
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