Aspen Tree or Quaking Aspen? How This Special Tree Got Its Name (Full Guide)

Man hiking with a stick in the forest looks at aspen trees and wonders where the name quaking aspen came from and how to identify aspen tree flowers, aspen tree leaves, aspen bark, and populus tremuloides aspen wood.

Is it the Aspen Tree or Quaking Aspen? And why does this special tree go by two names?

These questions are easily answered once you’ve beheld an Aspen tree…you can see and hear the reason.

This beautiful deciduous tree with white bark earned its name through the unique aspect of its leaves which quake and shimmer in the wind when hit with gentle breezes. They even make a distinct noise as the leaves blow in the wind which sounds like shaking a box of cereal.

These distinctive trees are well recognized and hold a special place in the forests they reside for the way their bark can photosynthesize.

This guide explains all about the Aspen Tree and how to identify it, and how to ensure the ones on your property flourish.

Quaking Aspen

Quaking Aspen, scientifically known as the Populus tremuloides, is a deciduous tree belonging to the Willow family.1

Native to North America, these fast-growing trees are found across the American continent, ranging from Alaska to Mexico, withstanding a variety of climates and conditions.


(Populus tremuloides)

Aspen tree in oval frame on green background.
  • Family: Salicaceae, of the willow family of flowering plants
  • Genus: Cottonwood, deciduous species in the Salicaceae family
  • Leaf: Ovate-triangular leaf, dark glossy green leaves that are finely toothed
  • Bark: White powdery bark, relatively smooth with black scars
  • Seed: Reddish brown, separates off the catkins
  • Blossoms: Gray-brown, greenish
  • Fruit: Referred to as catkins. Narrowly ovoid or flask shaped hanging capsules
  • Native Habitat: North America
  • Height: Less than 50 feet (15 meters)
  • Canopy: Narrow, rounded crown
  • Type: Deciduous

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Ranking

Least Concern


Image Credit: Merja Partanen (Hietaparta)33

The Aspen Tree is one of the more unique trees in the world, containing a host of unusual traits that no other tree possesses. The ability to photosynthesize from their bark and their abnormal reproductive system make them a tree worth learning about.

Quaking Aspen is a robust tree, enduring in a variety of regions that span from the colder climates of Canada to the mountainous regions of Mexico.23

These prolific trees provide a habitat for an assortment of wildlife such as moose, hares, and bears.

Some animals, such as the Pocket Gopher,2 actually feed on the roots and seem to be one of the few animals to slow down the rapid growth of the tree.

Aspen Tree Leaves

The namesake characteristic of the Quaking Aspen is derived from the Aspen Tree leaves. This is caused by the shape of the petiole, the stalk which attaches the leaf to the rest of the plant.

Its long and flattened structure allows for the leaves to flutter when brushed by the slightest breeze.3

The shape of the leaf loosely resembles a saw-toothed heart and hangs low beneath the branches. The Quaking Aspen leaves decay rapidly, and their decay bolsters the growth of the Aspen colony, adjusting the pH to their liking.

During the summer the leaves are glossy green with a duller green beneath, but as the seasons change, so do their color, bringing in shades of yellow, gold, and sometimes even red. If inspected closely, you may find the leaves have become prey for caterpillars, the most common type being the Forest Tent Caterpillar and the Western Tent Caterpillar.

What Does an Aspen Tree Look Like? (How To Identify Aspen Tree)

You may have never seen one, and are wondering “what does an Aspen Tree look like?

Depending on your location, chances are high that you’ve seen an Aspen Tree before.

Aspen tree identification chart showing Aspen tree leaf, Aspen tree flowers, Aspen tree seed pod, and Aspen Tree bark images in circle frames on a green background.

They’re slender trees, growing on average between 20 and 25 meters tall, and bear top dense, medium-sized canopy. The Quaking Aspen trunk is roughly 10 inches in width, considerably smaller than a Sitka Spruce, which can grow as thick as 12 feet, or even the Redwoods which sport a staggering 30-foot width.

Their bark takes on shades of light gray or cream, and while young remain smooth, but become furrowed with age. Another trait of the tree’s aging is that they develop black scars which have a distinct “eye” shape that speckles the trunk.

In the early spring, they begin to produce catkins, flowers that hang down like fuzzy fingers, which release pollen into the air.4 Aspens produce a series of lateral root systems, many of which stick close to the surface and can cause damage to the surrounding areas.

The canopy of the Aspen Tree is accumulated at the top of the tree. When a grove of Aspens spread out, they create a very high canopy with few branches near the base.

This creates lots of space around the base of the trees and gives you a unique visual perspective when walking through a copse of them.

Populus tremuloides

The Quaking Aspens’ scientific name is the Populus tremuloides,24 a name used to conjure the image of the trembling property it has. “Trem” is the Latin word for “trembling”, and “oides” is the Greek ending for “indicates” or “resembles”.

Put together, it’s the trembling tree that resembles the Populus tremula, or the common Aspen.

The Populus genus, which in turn belongs to the family Salicaceae, contains species such as the Poplar, Aspen, and Cottonwood.1 The name Populus is derived from the fact that Poplars were cultivated around public meeting places during Roman times.

Populus tremuloides are a quick-growing species, with their individual trees having a lifespan of roughly 60 to 70 years. When a new colony begins to grow, they develop what’s known as a Heart Root System, which allows the organism to sprout directly through the roots.

Populus tremuloides prefer cooler climates, and their distribution spans the continent of America. They can be found as high north as Alaska, and as far south as Mexico.

In certain areas of the midwest United States, Quaking Aspen covers more area than any other tree.20 Quaking Aspens have even been recorded growing in the warm spots of permafrost,6 eking out an existence where other organisms would pass away.

The Populus tremuloides is a keystone species, with fundamental importance to herbivores, insects, and fungi. Its significance to the ecosystem can not be understated.

Types of Aspen Trees

Humans have recorded six different types of Aspen Trees, each with slight variations among themselves. Nearly all Aspen have slender, long trunks, with serrated leaves.

The bark tends to take a range of colors between white and gray.

The Quaking Aspen is found predominantly throughout North America. They grow extremely fast, spreading through their suckers along the root system, and are well known for their shimmering leaves.

Their bark is also known for the characteristic “eye” that is printed within the black scars.

The Bigtooth Aspen has larger leaves with more serrated points, which are unevenly spaced along the edge. Their color differs from the Quaking Aspen, having a duller shade of green, and a pale green beneath.

They also tremble in the wind like the Quaking Aspen, though not as prominently. They grow 60 to 80 feet high, and as the tree ages they obtain long vertical furrows as it ages.

Aspen Tree grove showing Aspen Trees with golden-yellow leaves in autumn.

(Image: Intricate Explorer29)

The largest of the Aspen Trees is the European Aspen, growing up to 130 feet tall, and 30 feet wide at the canopy. The largest of the Aspens, reaching up to 130 feet and 30 feet wide at the canopy.28

By the name, you can presume you’ll find them growing in Europe (also Asia), and is native to the cooler regions.

Found in the subtropical regions of China, the Chinese Aspen can reach up to 100 feet tall. Native to China, it occurs within mountainous regions.

The wood is commonly used in the production of furniture and wood pulp.

The Korean Aspen is native all over Asia, including Russia, China, and of course, Korea. They reach roughly 75 feet high, and have spherical shaped leaves with a vibrant green shade.

These trees produce large quantities of catkins.

Japanese Aspen grows at a very fast rate and reaches roughly 65 feet high. The speed and strength of their root systems have been considered anywhere from nuisance, to danger.

They’ve been known to knock out power lines, and even breach sewer systems.

How Much Carbon Does Aspen Tree Sequester?

How much carbon does Aspen Tree sequester is an interesting question. Determining this question is based on a few things, such as growth rate, sustainability, manufacturing cost, lifespan, and distribution.

The Aspen Tree’s ability to grow is unrivaled. Their wide distribution, ability to regrow through the suckers, and their durability against fires, make them an extremely valuable tree for carbon sequestration.

Their longevity also adds to their carbon sequestration, as new trees are cloned from the root system, and the root system persists throughout the forest. These roots hold onto their carbon throughout their lifetime, and some of the oldest root systems are estimated at roughly 80,000 years old.

As we continue to pollute our air with carbon dioxide, it’s been shown that this is fueling the growth of the Aspen,19 though scientists fear their ability to soak up excess will eventually end.

Aspen Tree Bark

Aspen Tree bark contains some of its more remarkable qualities. The young bark begins greenish-white and is quite smooth to the touch.

As the tree matures, the bark becomes rougher and more furrowed, taking on the black, eye-shaped scars that it’s known for.

One of the standout properties of the Quaking Aspen is that the parts of a tree that are mostly used for protection, the bark, take on the task of photosynthesis. This allows the Quaking Aspen to drop its leaves during the winter, much like other trees, yet maintain its ability to photosynthesize which significantly contributes to its ability to survive harsh climates.7

This attribute causes the bark of the Quaking Aspen to remain quite thin, allowing light to pass through. The bark is also covered in a fine white powder that contains salicylate, a type of acid that is thought to be a form of naturally occurring pesticide.

The powder has been used as a natural remedy, containing medicinal properties that are similar to aspirin.8

Not only that but did you know that you can even eat Aspen Tree bark? It might not be your cup of tea, but the inner bark and cambium (a layer between the wood and bark), could tide you over in an emergency.

Aspen Tree Root System

The Aspen Tree root system has been heavily studied and is one of the more fascinating aspects of this wonderful tree.

The roots grow laterally, creating extensive branch systems that weave and flow throughout the forest, staying close to the surface.

Graphics of Aspen Root System showing Aspen Suckers growing from Aspen Tree's roots.

These root systems are indicative of a larger life form, as any copse of Aspen Trees is a singular organism called a clone.

The Quaking Aspen root is their main reproductive organ rather than their seeds. They produce something called a sucker,25 which is a shoot that will eventually turn into a tree.

This distinct trait gives Aspen Trees a competitive edge when propagating.

When a fire ravages an area, the Quaking Aspen can quickly take advantage of the new influx of sunlight, sprouting these suckers and taking control of the area with rapid reproduction. Sadly, these trees are seen as a nuisance to loggers and are generally culled to make way for coniferous species.

New research is suggesting that Aspen Trees are natural fuel breaks,9 and should be considered essential when planning the growth of a forest.

The aspen tree root system nearly borders on magic in its wide range of abilities and is one of the reasons this tree is so broadly spread throughout the continent.

Quaking Aspen Growth Rate

The Quaking Aspen growth rate is considered quite fast for a tree, reaching full maturity in roughly 20 years, and growing at a rate of up to 24” in one year.10

The best-growing conditions for Aspen Trees are in cooler climates, preferring moist soil and plenty of sunshine.

They are considered pioneer species, able to distribute themselves in sites with very little soil, and even persist in the presence of wildfires.

Every tree has its own growth rate, and you’ll find that its growth rate can directly affect its lifespan. The quicker-growing trees, one of the fastest-growing poplars, live for roughly 40 years but grow at a rate of 5 to 8 feet per year.

Quaking Aspen tree growth chart showing full grown Quaking Aspen tree on a line graph with Quaking Aspen tree age on the x-axis and Quaking Aspen tree height on the y-axis.

Much like other trees, certain conditions affect the trees’ growth rate, such as the availability of water, sun, and nutrients in the soil.

Surprisingly, Populus tremuloides with its ability to spread its roots across vast distances will seek out nutrients and clone itself in those locations.

The Aspen suckers, the shoots that branch off from roots, are susceptible to the grazing of ungulates (think deer and moose), so their ability to rapidly sprout and reach a height that becomes inconvenient to graze upon directly affects their ability to survive.11

Aspen Wood

Aspen wood is both a light and soft wood that is considered quite malleable. The heartwood at the center is light brown, while the sapwood takes on a yellow pallor.

There is no clear distinction between the heartwood and sapwood, they blend together over a gradient.

The wood of the Aspen Tree has long been used for making pulp, fuel, and even hamster bedding.2 The fine-grained wood of the Aspen Tree is straight and has little variance in texture or pattern, making it a suitable candidate for furniture.

Being one of the lighter woods when dry, Aspen wood makes for excellent oars and paddles, but not so much for building.

Its abundance has supported the logging industry,21 especially across Canada, due to its ability to grow rapidly. With the popularity of particle boards increasing during the 70s, the cut rate for Aspen increased dramatically, almost to the point of exceeding its growth.12

The Aspen Tree wood is versatile in its application, and thanks to its quick reproduction, has been able to fair the effects of man better than other species.

Aspen vs Birch

What are the differences between Aspen vs the Birch? After all, they are commonly mistaken for each other as they share a multitude of similarities.

Both are tall and slender, wrapped in a white to cream-colored bark, with thick upper canopies.

They both prefer colder climates and are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in the fall. With that being said, there are quite a few distinct differences.

The Birch belongs to the family Betulaceae,26 a different family from Aspens Salicaceae. Examples of physical differences can be found in the Aspen Tree’s bark, which is held tightly to its wood; Birch Tree bark comes off in peels, often referred to as “paper birch” because of this quality.13 While both the Aspen and Birch Tree leaves are toothed, the shape of the Aspen leaf is heart-shaped, whereas the Birch leaves have an oval shape that tapers into a fine point.

A Birch Tree can live up to 80 years, roughly 30% longer than your average Aspen, and mostly reproduce through its flowers. It’s worth noting that the Birch Tree can propagate from the roots much like Aspens, though far more seldomly.

While both trees are used for pulp, the Birch Tree is commonly used for canoes and veneer thanks to its waterproof nature. Birch is considered a favorite for wood turners, being made into toys or guitars.

Aspen Tree Flower

Quaking Aspen Tree flowers are considered dioecious, meaning the male and female flowers are produced on separate trees.

The flowers, known as catkins, are roughly 1 to 3-inch long, brownish-gray drooping objects that hang in clusters from the branches.

Close up image of the Aspen Tree flower with it's bird-like appearance.

(Image: Matt Lavin30)

The male and female flowers have some distinctions. The female flowers have red stigmas, a reproductive organ that catches pollen.

The male counterparts have red stamens, the pollen producers, which mature from the bottom up and eventually grow long silky hairs.14

When the female flowers are fertilized, they produce small fruit that split and releases a shower of tiny, cotton-like seeds which are scattered by the wind. This is the process of germination and will begin as quickly as a few days.23

Despite having the ability to reproduce through germination, the Aspen still prefers to clone itself through the shoots and suckers along its lateral roots. This trait gives it the advantage to select its locations and find the best environments.

Aspen Tree Seeds

The Aspen Tree seeds are a troublesome, yet viable start if you’re looking to grow an Aspen Tree. Aspen seeds are only viable for a short period and tend to lack moisture which is crucial to the sprouting process.6

The best-growing conditions for Aspen Trees are where the soil is moist and the sunshine is abundant. They dislike shade, and when sprouting are not considered very competitive.

With that being said, growing Aspen Tree from a seed can be a wonderful garden inclusion that will quickly mature into a large tree. Though be warned, their roots can quickly overtake an area.

If you’re looking for a few companion plants for growing Aspen Tree, try introducing a Dwarf Lilac, Yew, or Creeping Phlox

Make sure to keep your seeds moist, even placing a plastic bag overtop to maintain humidity can help contain the moisture. As your seeds grow, the watering needs for Aspen Tree plants increase drastically and are the most important factor in caring for them.

They need to be watered every two to four weeks and to a depth of roughly 2 feet.15 How long it takes to grow Aspen Trees from a seed depends on your location, amount of sun, and competition.

Aspen Tree Growing Zone

If you’re wondering about the growing zones for Aspen Tree (where to grow), I would start by looking at the growing zones for Aspen Trees, which range from hardiness zone 1 up to 7.27

These zones are geographically defined as having certain minimum temperatures and are rough guidelines for landscaping and gardening.

Planting Tips for Aspen Tree (How Far Apart To Plant Aspen Tree?)

Here are some of the planting tips for Aspen Tree. Plant your Aspen Trees in well-drained, moist soil.

If possible, choose a slightly acidic pH soil, and try to avoid the sunniest spots of your yard, as they dislike dry soil.

Several Aspen Trees planted next to each other in a grassy forest.

(Image: Zion National Park31)

If you choose growing an Aspen Tree from a cutting rather than growing an Aspen Tree from a seedling you’ll want to take the root cuttings before summer, sometime during a frost. Place them in plastic bags and keep them moist, drying them out will kill them.

Plant them in a box of dirt, water them frequently but not too much, and give them just enough sun.

Aspen Tree Disease Prevention

If you intend on growing these beautiful trees it’s best to be familiar with Aspen Tree disease prevention. Some of the common pests of the Aspen Tree include wood and bark-boring insects, such as the aphid, sawflies, and the leaf miner.5

The holes these insects bore into the wood create a perfect vector for the introduction of disease. The Aspen is a very sensitive tree, and certain diseases can decimate an entire population.

Aspen trunk rot is a decaying fungus that is exclusively associated with the Aspen Tree. Finding just one fruiting body from this fungus indicates overwhelming damage to as much as 82% of the gross tree volume.18

If you intend to grow your own Aspen Tree, it’s important to know how to stop Aspen Tree disease. Maintaining a watering schedule, much like any plant, is about getting the right amount of water which is crucial to its survival.

Never spray an Aspen sprout with a herbicide, as the sprouts are directly connected to the roots. If in need of a little Aspen quick care, a natural pest control for Aspen tree would be the simple mixture of soap, oil, and water, sprayed over the tree with a hose.

This should stop aphids in their tracks.5

Aspen Tree Facts

It’s tough to choose only a few Aspen Tree facts, but here are some of the most interesting. The Utah state tree is the Aspen, and in Fishlake National Park in Utah, there resides a singular organism that spans 107 acres and weighs 6’615 tonnes.

You might be surprised to find out it’s a sprawling grove of Quaking Aspen, made up of roughly 47 ‘000 trees, all connected through a complex root system that has been standing vigil for over 80’ 000 years.16

The leaves of the Aspen Tree which is characteristically yellow as the sunlight hits its surface.

(Image: BetsyD32)

Another interesting fact is that you can make a syrup from the Aspen Tree sap. It follows the same steps as getting syrup from a maple tree, tapping the Aspen with a tree spile, hanging a bucket, and collecting the sap flow.

Take caution, as you may have an allergy to the sap, and doing a skin reaction test before ingesting anything should be your first step.

Aspis, the Greek name for Aspen, means shield, and at one point it was used for just that. Its protective qualities spread to the general population as well, becoming a common tree to plant close to your home thanks to its alleged ability to protect you from psychic harm.17

The Aspen Tree is simply one of many wonderful types of trees, hosting everything from myths to world records.

Frequently Asked Questions About Aspen Tree

When To Plant Aspen Tree for the Best Yield?

You’ll want to plant your Aspen Tree in the early spring, giving it a chance to establish healthy roots to survive the upcoming winter. This answers the question, “when to plant Aspen Tree for the best yield?”

How Much Sunlight Does Aspen Tree Need Each Day?

One may ask, “how much sunlight does Aspen Tree need each day?” Aspens are intolerant of shady conditions, requiring as much as 6 hours of direct sunlight each day, but too much sun can dry out their soil, so be cautious where you plant them.


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