By: Teo Spengler
Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) are lovely in the wild, and enjoy the most extensive native range of any tree on the continent. Their leaves have flattened petioles, so they tremble in every light breeze. You may have admired aspens lighting up park slopes with brilliant yellow fall color. But be sure to read up on quaking aspen tree facts before you plant them in your backyard. Cultivated aspens can be a problem to a homeowner. Read on for information about the pros and cons of planting a quaking aspen tree, and how to grow quaking aspen trees.
Quaking Aspen Tree Facts
Before planting a quaking aspen tree in your garden, you’ll need to understand the pros and cons of cultivated aspen trees. Some gardeners love them, some do not.
Aspen trees grow very quickly and are very hardy. That means that you can “furnish” a new backyard in just a few seasons if you plant aspens. Aspens are small and won’t overwhelm your yard, and sometimes they provide nice autumn color.
On the other hand, consider that the role of aspens in nature is as a “succession” tree. Its job in the wild is to spread quickly in eroded or burned out areas, providing cover for seedlings of forest trees like pine, fir and spruce. As the forest trees get bigger, the aspens die out.
Quaking aspen tree facts establish that this succession tree spreads very fast in proper terrain. It grows fast from seeds, but also grows from suckers. Planting a quaking aspen tree can lead quickly to many quaking aspen weed trees invading your yard.
How Big Do Quaking Aspens Get?
If you are planting a quaking aspen tree, you may ask “how big do quaking aspens get?” They are generally small or medium trees, but can grow to 70 feet (21 m.) tall in the wild.
Note that cultivated trees grown in soil unlike that in which the tree experiences in the wild may stay smaller than trees in nature. They also may drop their leaves in the fall without that brilliant yellow display you see in the parks.
How to Grow Quaking Aspen Trees
If you decide to go ahead with planting a quaking aspen tree, try to pick nursery-grown specimens rather than those taken from the wild. Nursery grown trees require less care, and may avoid some of the disease issues the trees experience in cultivation.
A large part of quaking aspen tree care involves selecting an appropriate planting location. Plant the trees in moist, well-drained soil. The soil should be slightly acidic for the tree to thrive.
Plant aspens on northern or eastern slopes, or northern or eastern sides of your house, rather than sunnier areas. They cannot tolerate drought or hot, dry soil.
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Quaking aspens for the driveway? Or a better idea.Quaking aspens in fall. Colorado State Extension
Q: I want to plant three quaking aspen trees on each side of my rather long, asphalt driveway. I was doing some reading about them and learned that they have a very vigorous root system and can travel up to 40 feet from the parent tree. I am concerned about damaging my driveway, but really have my heart set on quaking aspens.
I was wondering if this vigorous root system is strong and/or shallow enough to damage an asphalt driveway. We were thinking of planting them about 5 feet from the driveway. If aspens are a bad idea, I would love to get some ideas of trees better suited for a driveway landscape.
A: Quaking aspens are beautiful trees. in Colorado. The biggest obstacle here is our summer heat. They're native to cooler and mostly mountainous regions and don't do well in 90- to 100-degree summers.
Since we're seeing more and more of that, this is a species that's probably going to be even less at home in central Pennsylvania. Our too-warm climate is the main reason you don't see local garden centers carrying quaking aspens.
Besides that, your suspicions are right about the roots being a problem next to a driveway -- especially only 5 feet off a driveway. Most trees eventually will do damage to your driveway when planted that closely.
The idea of lining a long driveway with trees is a nice one. It makes an elegant entry that's called an "allee."
You can pull this off by rethinking two things: 1.) Can you switch to smaller trees with deeper and less invasive root systems? 2.) Can you plant a little farther back away from the driveway?
A good distance would be about half the width of the tree's mature canopy. In other words, if you plant, say, flowering crabapples that spread 18 feet or so across, I'd suggest planting them at least 9 or 10 feet back off the driveway. Bigger trees should go even farther back.
This spacing not only makes driveway damage less likely, but you won't have to deal with limbs banging into your car within a few years.
As for species, river birch is the closest look to quaking aspen (similar leaves, nice peeling bark, multiple trunks, more adapted to our climate). But these can get 40 feet tall and 25 feet across. If you can plant them about 12 feet back and 25 feet apart, those would work. 'Dura Heat' and 'Heritage' are two good river-birch varieties.
If you don't have the space to go wider, here are a few smaller trees with peeling or flaking bark:
Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica). Flaking bark, bright gold fall foliage, grows about 30 feet tall by 20 feet wide and can be grown with multiple trunks.
Japanese or Korean stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamelliaand S. koreana). Flaking bark, white late-spring flowers, mix of bright fall foliage, grows 25 feet tall by 18 to 20 feet across.
Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa). More sun-, clay- and disease-tough than American dogwoods. White or pink spring flowers, red fall fruits, reddish fall foliage, flaking bark in winter, grows 25 feet tall and 20 to 25 feet across.
Paperbark maple (Acer griseum). Peeling cinnamon-colored bark is the main attraction but also has nice golden fall foliage. A slow-growing, mid-sized maple at 25 to 30 feet tall and 20 to 25 feet across.
Seven-son flower (Heptacodium miconioides). The smallest of these, this one gets white summer flowers, reddish-purple fall fruiting pods and shredded bark on trees that grow slowly to about 18 feet tall and 12 feet wide in a dozen years.
Crabapples also would work, although they don't have peeling bark. I like 'Prairifire' (magenta spring flowers, burgundy-tinted summer leaves, red fall pea-sized fruits) and 'Sugar Tyme' (white spring flowers, red fall pea-sized fruits and a narrow habit, making it ideal for a tight driveway line).
Ginkgo is another non-peeling driveway choice -- especially the narrow variety 'Princeton Sentry' (50 feet tall, 20 feet across and bright gold fall foliage).
And a third non-peeler to consider is Japanese tree lilac. These grow upright to about 20 or 25 feet tall with a spread of about 15 to 18 feet. They get white late-spring flower clusters and are very heat- and drought-tough. 'Ivory Silk' and 'Summer Snow' are two of the best tree lilac varieties.
See pictures and more descriptions of some of these trees on my web site at this link:
Audubon® Quaking Aspen
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Is there anything prettier than a Quaking Aspen on a sunny summer’s day, its leaves twirling and dancing in the wind? Perhaps it is the sight of songbirds hopping from branch to branch, feeding in the fluttering canopy! Quaking Aspen hosts a vast array of insects that birds love. Chickadees, tanagers, orioles, warblers, and wrens get valuable nourishment from the caterpillars and other insects they find there. When nesting, birds bring home much of that bounty to their ever-hungry young. Have the most beautiful birdfeeder on the block with this splendid native tree!
Take Birds Under Your Wing
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Audubon® is a licensed and registered trademark of the National Audubon Society. All rights reserved.
Quaking Aspen, a.k.a. “White Poplar,” or “Popple,” is North America’s most wide-ranging tree and can be found from coast to coast and from Northern Canada all the way down to the mountains of Central Mexico. This remarkable tree rarely gains new ground by seed, however. Aspen spreads by sending out suckers, which pop up to produce new trees. These trees are all connected by one root system and are genetically identical, so each “colony” is technically a single organism. The largest colony, “Pando” (Latin for “I spread”), in Utah, covers an area the size of 80 football fields! Scientists estimate that the Pando colony has been growing for 80,000 years.
This native tree belongs to the Willow family, and like Willows it’s a great tree for a wildlife-friendly garden. Quaking Aspen feeds many species of butterflies, including the beautiful viceroy. The viceroy’s orange and black markings mimic those of the iconic monarch, thus fooling predators into thinking it tastes as bad as the toxic monarch butterfly.
How to Grow
Because of its unusual growing habit, Quaking Aspen is probably a little different from other trees you may have grown. To keep it as a single specimen tree, you must be careful to never damage the bark, and you must keep the roots cool with a layer of mulch. Otherwise, the suckering mechanism kicks in. You can keep suckers under control by mowing, though letting them spring up and form a grove is nice, too. Quaking Aspen laughs at cold weather (it grows where temperatures drop below -50°F!), but it isn’t crazy about the hot, humid summers of the Southeast. Plant it in a sunny site with well-drained soil for best results.
Quaking Aspen The Willow Family– Salicaceae
Names: Quaking Aspen is sometimes called Trembling Aspen. All of its names refer to how the leaves will quiver with the slightest breeze.
Relationships: There are about 15 species of Populus (Poplars, Cottonwoods and Aspens) native to North America. In our region, Black Cottonwood is very common.
Distribution of Quaking Aspen from USGS ( “Atlas of United States Trees” by Elbert L. Little, Jr. )
Distribution: It is the most widely distributed tree in North America. It ranges from Alaska to Newfoundland and Labrador, southeast to Virginia. Distribution is spotty in the west, occurring mostly in the mountains from Washington to California and Mexico and in the Colorado Rockies. It is found sporadically in valleys west of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon, often in association with Black Hawthorn, Crataegus douglasii. It is also found near the shores of Puget Sound and on southeastern Vancouver Island.
Growth: A fast growing tree, often multitrunked, Quaking Aspen can reach 90 feet (30m), but usually only grows 20-60 feet (7-20m).
Habitat: A fairly short-lived tree, it grows in wet forest openings and meadows, sometimes on the border of oak parklands and gravelly prairies. It often forms clonal stands (groves composed of genetically identical trees created by the growth of spreading suckers).
Diagnostic Characters: The most important diagnostic character for Quaking Aspen is the flexible, laterally flattened petioles (leaf stalks). It is this feature that makes the triangular, heart-shaped leaves tremble in the slightest breeze.
In the Landscape: Quaking Aspen is a popular landscape tree because it adds one more design element to the garden, movement! It also has brilliant golden-yellow fall color. Planted in groves it can make a spectacular display, but it should not be planted where suckering growth may cause problems to sewers, drainage systems or other utilities.
Phenology: Bloom Period: Catkins appear April to May before the leaves, female and male flowers usually on separate plants. Aspen pollen is carried by the winds and is another major allergen–dispersed mostly in March. Seeds with long, silky hairs are dispersed soon after they are ripe in May or June, carried by air or water currents.
Propagation: similar to willows, fresh seed germinates readily. It can also be propagated from suckers. This species does not root as readily from cuttings as do other poplars.
Use by People: Quaking Aspen is one of the most important timber trees in the east. It is used for making engineered lumber such as waferboard and oriented strandboard. The pulp makes fine paper. It is also used to make crates, pallets and furniture as well as excelsior (wood shavings used for packing or stuffing), matchsticks, tongue depressors, and pellets for fuel.
Use by Wildlife: For deer, elk and moose Quaking Aspen is an important browse. Rabbits, rodents, porcupines, and beaver all eat the bark and other parts of aspen trees. They often can girdle and kill small trees. Beavers use it for making their lodges and can kill and remove 200 stems a year as far as 400 feet from a waterway! Quaking Aspen also provides important feeding and nesting sites for many birds. It is host to several insect species that are food for woodpeckers.
These species are called aspens:
- Populus adenopoda – Chinese aspen (China, south of P. tremula)
- Populus davidiana – Korean aspen (Eastern Asia)
- Populus grandidentata – Bigtooth aspen (eastern North America, south of P. tremuloides)
- Populus sieboldii – Japanese aspen  (Japan)
- Populus tremula – Eurasian aspen (northern Europe and Asia)
- Populus tremuloides – Quaking aspen or trembling aspen (northern and western North America)
Aspen trees are all native to cold regions with cool summers, in the north of the northern hemisphere, extending south at high-altitude areas such as mountains or high plains. They are all medium-sized deciduous trees reaching 15–30 m (50–100 ft) tall. In North America, the aspen is referred to as quaking aspen or trembling aspen because the leaves "quake" or tremble in the wind. This is due to their flattened petioles which reduces aerodynamic drag on the trunk and branches.
Aspens typically grow in environments that are otherwise dominated by coniferous tree species, and which are often lacking other large deciduous tree species. Aspens have evolved several adaptations that aid their survival in such environments. One is the flattened leaf petiole, which reduces aerodynamic drag during high winds and decreases the likelihood of trunk or branch damage. Dropping leaves in the winter (like most but not all other deciduous plants) also helps to prevent damage from heavy winter snow. Additionally, the bark is photosynthetic, meaning that growth is still possible after the leaves have been dropped. The bark also contains lenticels that serve as pores for gas exchange (similar to the stomata on leaves).
Aspens are also aided by the rhizomatic nature of their root systems. Most aspens grow in large clonal colonies, derived from a single seedling, and spread by means of root suckers new stems in the colony may appear at up to 30–40 m (100–130 ft) from the parent tree. Each individual tree can live for 40–150 years above ground, but the root system of the colony is long-lived. In some cases, this is for thousands of years, sending up new trunks as the older trunks die off above ground. For this reason, it is considered to be an indicator of ancient woodlands. One such colony in Utah, given the nickname of "Pando", has been estimated to be as old as 80,000 years,  if validated, this would be making it possibly the oldest living colony of aspens. Some aspen colonies become very large with time, spreading about 1 m (3 ft) per year, eventually covering many hectares. They are able to survive forest fires, because the roots are below the heat of the fire, and new sprouts appear after the fire burns out. The high stem turnover rate combined with the clonal growth leads to proliferation in aspen colonies. The high stem turnover regime supports a diverse herbaceous understory.
Aspen seedlings do not thrive in the shade, and it is difficult for seedlings to establish in an already mature aspen stand. Fire indirectly benefits aspen trees, since it allows the saplings to flourish in open sunlight in the burned landscape, devoid of other competing tree species. Aspens have increased in popularity as a forestry cultivation species, mostly because of their fast growth rate and ability to regenerate from sprouts. This lowers the cost of reforestation after harvesting since no planting or sowing is required.
Recently, aspen populations have been declining in some areas ("Sudden Aspen Death"). This has been attributed to several different factors, such as climate change, which exacerbates drought and modifies precipitation patterns. Recruitment failure from herbivory or grazing prevents new trees from coming up after old trees die. Additionally, successional replacement by conifers due to fire suppression alters forest diversity and creates conditions where aspen may be at less of an advantage.
In contrast with many trees, aspen bark is base-rich, meaning aspens are important hosts for bryophytes  and act as food plants for the larvae of butterfly (Lepidoptera) species—see List of Lepidoptera that feed on poplars.
Young aspen bark is an important seasonal forage for the European hare and other animals in early spring. Aspen is also a preferred food of the European beaver. Elk, deer, and moose not only eat the leaves but also strip the bark with their front teeth.