Poplar Tree: What To Know Before Planting (Tulip, Hybrid, Leaves, Bark)

Kim Williamson, Author 8 Billion TreesWritten by Kim Williamson

Forestry, Trees and Tree Planting | February 26, 2024

Woman holding a magnifying glass up to a poplar tree leaf wonders how to identify tulip poplar trees, types of poplars, hybrid varieties while looking at poplar tree leaves, bark, poplar flowers on a tree.

The Poplar Tree is steeped in history, with evidence of their influence dating back to the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Poplar Trees, primarily Eurasia natives, are commonly seen across North America, and the wood of the Poplar has been used for many purposes through the years.

But if you plan to plant one of these lovely trees, there are some things you should know.

This complete guide outlines various types of Poplars and how to identify Poplar trees, and explains how to care for a Popular tree both before planting it, and also after it’s taken root, so that you can ensure that your trees flourish wherever you live. 

Types of Poplar Trees

There are many types of trees in the Populus genus, and these are often lumped into 3 broad groups: the cottonwoods (Eastern Cottonwood Tree, Narrowleaf Cottonwood Tree, etc.), the aspens (Quaking Aspen Tree, Bigtooth Aspen Tree, etc.), and the poplars.24

Species belonging to this genus are related to Willow Tree and share the same taxonomic family (Salicaceae).15,29



Poplar tree in oval frame on green background.
  • Characteristics: Approximately 30 species of tall, fast-growing, relatively short-lived deciduous trees found primarily in the northern hemisphere
  • Order: Malpighiales
  • Family: Salicaceae
  • Type: Deciduous
  • Bark: Smooth (white, green, or gray) bark on young trees. Older trees may have smooth or rough, deeply grooved bark
  • Leaf: Spirally arranged leaves, usually round or triangular, on long petioles. Variable in size
  • Blossoms: Small flowers on long, hanging catkins. Dioecious (separate male and female flowers)
  • Fruit: Green to brown seed capsule, usually split. Mid-summer
  • Seed: Tiny, brown seeds embedded in cotton-like, white tufts
  • Growth Rate: Fast. Can grow several feet each year
  • Height: Ranging from 50 to 100+ feet at maturity
  • Canopy: Up to 70 feet
  • Average Life Span: 50 Years
  • Native Habitat: Northern hemisphere
  • USDA Growing Zone: 3 - 9

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Ranking

Least Concern


There are many types of Cottonwood and Aspen Trees native to North America, but most of the trees in the “Poplar” subgroup are trees which have migrated and naturalized there.

White Poplar (Silver Poplar) Tree (Populus alba)

The White Poplar Tree, also known as the Silver Poplar, is a mid-sized Eurasia native that has become a common sight in North America. Young trunks are white but age to a very dark gray.

The leaves are typically 3 to 5 lobed – resembling Maple Tree leaves – and their undersides appear silver, due to white tomentosa (soft, fine hairs).17

Much like the closely related Aspen, the White Poplar Tree reproduces by sending up slender shoots from its shallow root system. Left alone, these root suckers can grow to form dense thickets of clonal Poplars.

The tree’s aggressive spreading habit is a primary reason why it is not recommended for planting in most areas of the United States.18,21

Black Poplar (Lombardy Poplar) Tree (Populus nigra)

The Black Poplar Tree is another Eurasia native with dark gray, furrowed bark. It is a narrow tree which can grow to be 70 feet tall.

It is adaptable to a wide range of climates but is generally short-lived. Its leaves are shiny with a triangular or diamond shape.

The Black Poplar is a messy tree, producing an abundance of pollen, seed, leaf and twig litter. It also spreads via root suckers which can cause issues for nearby landscapes.31

The Lombardy Poplar (P. nigra var. italica) is a popular variant of the Black Poplar which grows incredibly straight and narrow. It is commonly seen along fence rows and property boundaries.

Balsam Poplar (Populus balsamifera)

The Balsam Poplar is a large, cold-weather tree which grows from the Atlantic coast of Canada westward through Alaska and southward into the states of Minnesota and Michigan.1 It has large, serrated dark green, pointed leaves.

The Balsam Poplar is most easily recognized by its scent. The large, pointed buds of this species produce a sticky, red substance which smells distinctively of balsam.

Hybrid Poplar Tree

There are many hybrid Poplar Trees which have developed naturally over time in areas where species grow in close proximity to one another. The most common examples are the Gray Poplar (Populus x canescens) and the Canadian or Carolina Poplar (Populus x canadensis).30

Wide shot of tall Gray Poplar Tree situated in a park showing light green leaves on long branches.

(Image: GuentherZ36)

However, most people are probably thinking of a particular hybrid Poplar Tree, sometimes called the ‘superior hybrid Poplar’ or “the people’s tree.’ This hybrid is a cross between the Eastern Cottonwood and the Black Poplar.

It is appreciated for its exceptionally fast growth rate (up to 8 feet per year!) and its cottonless seeds.13

Poplar Tree Facts

Although Poplar trees may not be the ideal choice for landscape planting, they are nonetheless interesting trees. Here are ten Poplar Tree facts that most people aren’t aware of.

  1. While many species of cottonwood and aspen are native to North America, the most well-known “Poplars” – the White Poplar and Black Poplar – are actually not native to this continent.14
  2. Poplar wood was an often used medium for Italian art during the Renaissance. In fact, the Mona Lisa was painted on Poplar wood.3
  3. Poplar wood is also used in the construction of woodwind instruments, such as the oboe, and stringed instruments, such as the violin.3,8
  4. Poplar Trees (specifically P. nigra var. italica) are commonly used in privacy edging, as they grow in very slender, upright form.3
  5. Ancient empires such as the Greeks and Romans used Poplar wood in their shields because of its light weight and durability.3
  6. Poplar Trees, like their closely related cousin, the quaking aspen, can reproduce genetically identical trees by sending up slender shoots from their spreading roots.25
  7. Poplar Trees are dioecious. In other words, the species has separate male and female trees and both must be present for pollination to occur.16
  8. Examine the leafstalks, or petioles, of Poplar leaves. They are long and flattened.
    This creates a shimmering effect as Poplar leaves tremble in the breeze.14
  9. These short-lived trees rarely survive past 100 years.
  10. Poplar Tree root systems have been known to stretch over a 100 feet in search of moisture.14

Poplar Tree Identification (How To Identify Poplar Tree)

Poplar Tree identification does not have to be difficult, as Poplars have some distinctive characteristics that should make them recognizable, such as their rapid growth.

A quick look at the long, woolly catkins and fuzzy, heart-shaped leaves can be very revealing.

Poplar tree identification chart showing Poplar tree leaves, Poplar tree flower, Poplar tree seed pod, and Poplar Tree bark images in circle frames on a green background.

There are many Poplar Trees and Poplar relatives currently established in the United States, and this is why knowing how to identify Poplar Trees comes in handy.

Poplar Tree Leaves

Poplar Trees are deciduous, losing their leaves each winter. Poplar Tree leaves are medium sized (2 – 5 inches) simple and arranged alternately on long petioles.

Each twig has a terminal bud.

Leaves are typically broad at the base, forming a heart or triangular shape. In some species, the leaves may be lobed and/or toothed.33

Many Poplar trees bear leaves with hairy undersides, often with a white or gray sheen.34

Poplar Tree Flower

The tiny flowers of Poplar Trees may not be recognized as such by the untrained eye. Poplar Trees are dioecious, with separate male and female organisms, which are wind-pollinated.

The inconspicuous Poplar Tree flowers grow on long, hanging clusters called catkins.33 The catkins are often attractive, with deep red hues.

Poplar Tree Seeds

The droopy catkins of the female Poplar Tree also house the tufted seeds.33 The pods usually open in the late spring, and the many seeds are released amidst cottony hairs which facilitate dispersal.34

Poplar Tree seeds are only viable for 2 to 3 days after their release.23

Poplar Tree Bark

There is, of course, interspecies diversity in Poplar Tree bark, but in general, the bark of Poplars can be characterized by its transition from thin, smooth, light (almost white or greenish white) bark in young trees to thick, rough, dark bark in mature specimens.

Poplar bark is edible, but notably bitter to the taste.33

How Much Carbon Does Poplar Tree Sequester?

Many people are interested in how much carbon does Poplar Tree sequester. Although Poplar Trees cannot currently compete with mangroves, pines, and evergreens for amount of carbon sequestered, they can absorb amounts comparable to other deciduous trees, with estimates between 20 and 40 pounds per year.11

However, due to their extremely fast growth rate, Poplar Trees have been the subjects of genetic engineering, and modified Poplars with increased carbon absorption are being planted experimentally in the U.S.4,7

Related Reading: How Much Carbon Does a Tree Capture

Poplar Tree Growing Zone

The best Poplar Tree growing zones are usually USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3 – 9.3

After finding out the growing zones for Poplar Tree, where to grow Poplars is as simple as consulting the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map below.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map of the United States (U.S.) showing the hardiness zone of each state.

Poplar Trees appear to thrive in temperate climates, and the best growing conditions for Poplar Tree can be found throughout the United States, excepting the tropical islands of Hawaii and Puerto Rico, the sub-tropical southern tips of California, Texas, and Florida, and the arctic cold of northern Alaska.

Balsam Poplars (P. balsamifera) are hardy through zone 2 and can grow farther north than other Poplar species.27

Planting Tips for Poplar Trees

Poplar Trees may not be recommended for cultivation in many settings, but following these simple planting tips for Poplar Tree can ameliorate some of the most pressing concerns.

How far apart to plant Poplar Tree depends upon the type of Poplar and its purpose. For example, Lombardy Poplars are often planted close together (less than 8 feet apart) to create privacy barriers and windscreens.20

Other, less narrow species require more space. Maintaining a distance of at least 20 feet from driveways, houses, and patios can reduce the likelihood of problems created by the shallow, spreading root systems.27

Gardeners may wonder when to plant Poplar Tree for the best yield. Growing a Poplar Tree from a seedling or sapling works best when they are transplanted during their dormant season.

Saplings can be transplanted during the fall (before the first frost) or in the early spring (after the last frost). Due to their small size, seedlings are less frost resistant and should be planted after the last frost.

Soil temperatures around 50 ℉ are ideal.12

Growing a Poplar Tree from a cutting is much easier and quicker than growing Poplar Tree from a seed. The best time to root a Poplar cutting is from early summer (after flowering) through the middle of winter.

Use sharp shears to take a 6 inch cutting below a set of leaves, remove leaves from the lower half of the cutting, and plant this section into a prepared container. Gently pack the soil and lightly water the base of the cutting.

Poplar cuttings should be kept in lightly shaded areas and misted three times per day.

Within one to two weeks, the cutting should take root and can be transplanted into a larger container in another few weeks. The small sapling should be ready for outdoor transplant within three months.5

Water the young sapling regularly until it is well-established.3

Poplar Tree Care

How long it takes to grow Poplar Tree does depend in part upon the exact species being cultivated as well as the growing conditions in the area where the tree is planted.

Most Poplar Trees have a maximum height between 50 and 80 feet high.

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

They are extremely fast-growing in proper conditions, often adding more than 5 feet of growth each year. In other words, it may be possible to grow a Poplar Tree to maturity in the span of a single decade.2,3

It is important to note the watering needs for Poplar Tree plants, articularly young organisms. Planting a Poplar in a low area or place that receives significant water run-off can ensure the tree is adequately hydrated.

When this is not possible, regular watering can ensure the tree thrives while also deterring moisture seeking root shoots.3

Poplar Tree Problems

There are various problems to contend with where Poplar Trees are concerned, and in general, Poplars are not recommended for residential and landscape planting. The following Poplar Tree problems should be considered before introducing these trees:

  1. Most Poplar Trees are rather short lived, with average life spans between 50 and 100 years
  2. The wood of Poplar Trees is often brittle and susceptible to breakage, making these trees messy in a yard or garden setting33
  3. Furthering the mess problem, the cotton-like fibers surrounding the seeds of some Poplar species (most prominent in cottonwoods) can become quite a nuisance34
  4. Members of the Populus genus tend to spread via root suckers, often forming clonal colonies. In a residential environment, this means continuous maintenance to cut back the slender shoots that inevitably arise from the shallow root systems.
  5. Poplars are susceptible to numerous pests and diseases, making them unreliable as well as problematic. Read more about Poplar pests and diseases in the following sections.31

Poplar Tree Disease Prevention

Poplar Trees are by no means immune to disease, and they can succumb to many different issues caused by fungi and bacteria. Fungi are responsible for the vast majority of Poplar diseases, such as:26,31

  • Cytospora Canker (Cytospora chrysosperma): Causes cankers on the branches of white Poplars and gradually kills the bark. Differentially affects the related quaking Aspen
  • Hypoxylon Canker (Hypoxylon mammatum): Causes sunken, yellow to orange bark cankers and bark death/loss. Affects the Balsam Poplar, but not to the same extent as the Aspens
  • Anthracnose (Marssonina): Causes round, brown spots with oozing spores on leaves
  • Rusts (Melampsora): Causes dusty, yellow spores on the underside of leaves in summer and red to black blisters in fall. Lombardy Poplar is particularly susceptible.
    This disease is not usually fatal to the tree, but it is highly infectious to many tree species.

The most common bacterial disease is Wetwood (Corynebacterium humiferum) which causes sections of the Poplar trunks to darken and appear soaked. The tree may give off an unpleasant odor, and specimens usually die prematurely.

Although there is no known cure for Wetwood, there are ways for how to stop Poplar Tree disease caused by fungi if they are caught early enough.

Canker spread may be prevented by pruning the infected areas of the tree and disposing of them properly. The spread of rusts can be controlled by clearing away diseased leaves from the ground surrounding the tree and sterilizing tools.26

Closeup of Poplar Tree showing seed pods surrounded with white cotton fibers.

(Image: siala35)

Poplar Tree disease prevention can be as easy as ensuring that the trees are adequately watered and fertilized. This makes the trees more hardy and resilient to disease.

Natural Pest Control for Poplar Trees

Insect pests can create real problems for Poplar Trees, and some of the most common pests of the Poplar Tree include:3,26

  • Cottonwood Leaf Beetle (Chrysomela scripta)
  • Gypsy Moth Caterpillar (Lymatria dispar)
  • Oystershell Scale (Lepidosaphes ulmi): Insects leech water and nutrients from the trees killing branches and even whole trees
  • Poplar Borer (Saperda calcarata): Larvae burrow into the trunk and branches causing swelling and scarring, and compromising the tree’s integrity
  • Poplar Curculio (Cryptorhynchus lapathi)
  • Poplar Leafhopper (Idiocerus scurra)
  • Poplar Sawfly (Trichiocampus viminalis): Larvae feed on leaves, destroying foliage
  • Tussock Moth Caterpillar (Lophocampa caryae)

Prevention is usually the best natural pest control for Poplar Tree, and the best way to achieve this is by planting pest resistant varieties, and regularly monitoring established trees for signs of infestation. (Consult the USDA’s “A Guide to Insect, Disease, and Animal Pests of Poplars” for picture comparisons and notes).

Tulip Poplar Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

The Tulip Poplar Tree, is often classed in with the various “true” Poplars discussed in this article, which is understandable given its common name and the fact that its timber is marketed as “Poplar wood.” However, the Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) is actually more closely related to the Magnolia Tree than to Poplars.

It is one of only two extant species in the Liriodendron genus (the other species is the Chinese Tulip Tree, Liriodendron chinense).23 This incredible tree is a common sight throughout the eastern United States, where it is the state tree of Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee.19

The Liriodendron tulipifera species dates back approximately 50 million years in North America, placing it among the oldest trees on earth. The Tulip Poplar, also called Yellow Poplar, was the favorite tree of the first U.S. president, George Washington.

Low-angle shot of Tulip Poplar Tree showing its foliage with varying shades of green leaves and grayish bark on its branches.

He planted the large, stately trees around his Mount Vernon Estate, where they still grow today. Washington also gifted saplings to his friend, the marquis de Lafayette of France, where one was gifted to Marie Antoinette, surviving until 1999.19

The Tulip Poplar was used by Native Americans to fashion canoes by hollowing out the large trunks. For this reason, it was often referred to as “Canoewood.”10

Tulip Tree vs Tulip Poplar

It is not uncommon to assume that the Tulip Tree and Tulip Poplar are different species, as the term “Poplar” in the common name is misleading.

There are actually no differences between the Tulip Tree vs. Tulip Poplar, as both of these common names reference the beautiful, yellow, tulip- like flowers of Liriodendron tulipifera.32

Tulip Poplar Identification

It is relatively easy to identify a Tulip Poplar Tree. The Tulip Poplar Tree is among the most recognizable native trees in North America.

Do a quick internet search for yellow trees, and the Tulip Poplar is likely to turn up. The Tulip Poplar is known for its yellow wood, yellow flowers, and yellow fall foliage.

This deciduous tree grows incredibly tall (up to 200 feet!) and straight with high branches stretching upwards. The tallest hardwood species in North America, the Tulip Tree is second in size only to the giant American conifers.

Everything about this tree exudes durability and elegance. These trees can live to be 350 years old!10,19

Tulip Poplar Leaf

The leaf of the Tulip Poplar is one of its most distinctive features. The Tulip Poplar leaf is large and broad (5 – 7 inches in diameter) with four shallow, pointed lobes.

Closeup of Tulip Poplar Tree showing its green and yellow leaves with the cloudy sky in the background.

The simple (one leaf part per petiole) leaves are arranged in alternating fashion. They are a deep, rich green in summer and bright yellow in autumn.33

When crushed, the leaves emit a spicy fragrance.19

Tulip Poplar Flowers

Tulip Poplar flowers are large, cup-shaped blooms which blossom in May to June. Each petal is up to 2 inches long, green tipped with yellow and orange at the base.34

The flowers are monoecious (containing both male and female parts in each flower) and insect pollinated. The tulip tree waits many years to bloom, often until its mid-teens.10

Three Tulip Poplar Tree Blossoms on plank showing its green and orange petals and yellow stamens.

(Image: Denise Davis37)

Due to the enormous height of mature trees, flowers are often only admired if they fall to the ground. The flowers give way to magnolia-like seed cones which fall in late autumn.19

Tulip Poplar Wood

The Tulip Poplar Tree has light gray bark which is rather uniform and attractive in appearance with regular grooves in straight or criss-crossing patterns. Beneath the bark, the yellow tulip Poplar wood is straight-grained and durable.

The wood is often tinted with green and/or pink.10 This pale hardwood has been used as lumber but also in the construction of furniture, boats, toys, and more.19,24

Tulip Poplar Growth Rate

The Tulip Poplar growth rate is another of its impressive qualities. It is rather fast-growing for a hardwood tree, adding up to two feet of height per year.10

Tulip Poplar Tree Problems

This impressive tree is resistant to most common pest and disease problems, but one of the most notable Tulip Poplar Tree problems stems from its incredible size.

Because Tulip Poplars are insect-pollinated, mature trees bearing flowers 50 to 80 feet from the ground often go unpollinated resulting in unfertilized seed.

This makes the Tulip Poplar exceptionally difficult to grow from seed.19

The Tulip Poplar does not tolerate shade and thrives in full sun with moist, well-drained soil. Luckily, this tall tree typically has little issue finding full sun conditions.17

Wide shot of Tulip Poplar Tree situated in the front of a house showing its long and thick trunk.

Furthermore, due to its great size, the tulip tree appears to succumb to lightning strikes at a greater rate than its neighbors.6

The trees of the Populus genus have long been cultivated for their exceptionally fast growth rate, attractive foliage, and pliable wood. However, these advantages are coupled with a myriad of issues, such as their brittle wood, short lifespans, messy seed litter, and invasive root systems.

In fact, the spreading, suckering habits of the tree roots should be enough to make anyone think twice about planting a Poplar Tree.

Frequently Asked Questions About Poplar Tree

How Fast Do Poplar Trees Grow?

A common question about these trees is “How fast do Poplar Trees grow?” Poplar Trees happen to be among the fastest growing trees, typically increasing their size by at least 3 feet (and often 5 ft. or more) per year.3

What Is Poplar Wood Used For?

Yes, Poplar Trees are fast growers and useful shade trees, but what is Poplar wood used for? Poplar wood is most commonly used to make plywood, wood pulp, paper, furniture, and cabinets and it was historically used as a canvas for paint art.3,28

How Much Sunlight Does Poplar Tree Need Each Day?

An important question to answer before planting a Poplar Tree is “How much sunlight does Poplar Tree need each day?” Although Poplar Trees can usually tolerate partial shade, they thrive in full sun conditions, with 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight per day.22

What Are Some Good Companion Plants for Growing Poplar Trees?

Since most Poplar Tree species have shallow, aggressive root systems, they are not an ideal neighbor for shrubs, trees, or other deep rooted plants. The best companion plants for growing Poplar Trees are ground-covering plants, such as herbs, legumes, and flowers which attract pollinators.9

Read More About Poplar Tree


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9Gulgowski, J. (2023, April 2). Poplar Trees: Plant a Poplar Tree: What are Its Types and Diseases? The Dirt Doctors. Retrieved April 26, 2023, from <https://www.thedirtdoctors.com/poplar-trees/>

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34Wharton, M. E. (1973). Trees & shrubs of Kentucky. [Print] University Press of Kentucky.

35Siala. poplar-tree-female-fruit-capsule-2398915. Pixabay. Retrieved from <https://pixabay.com/photos/poplar-tree-female-fruit-capsule-2398915/>

36Graupappel (Populus x canescens) Photo by GuentherZ / Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Austria (CC BY-SA 3.0 AT). Resized and changed file format. From Wikimedia Commons <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Naturdenkmal444_2014-03-29_(104)_Wien15_Auer-Welsbachpark_Populus_x_canescens_GuentherZ.JPG>

37Species Information Image: Lombardy poplars in all their sunlit golden autumn (fall) glory. Photo by Nareeta Martin. (2020, August 26) / Unsplash License. Cropped and remixed with text, shape, and background elements. Unsplash. Retrieved January 9, 2024, from <https://unsplash.com/photos/brown-trees-on-green-grass-field-under-blue-sky-during-daytime-dAkeSNgXBfY>

38Tulip Poplar Flowers image. Provided by Denise Davis