How do I identify an Aspen tree? (With Pictures)

The Aspen tree is a deciduous tree that belongs to the genus Populous. Primarily it belongs to the willow family. As with the willow family, the wood of the Aspen is soft but durable. It is also flexible and does not splinter easily. It can withstand temperature to a reasonable extent.

Hence the wood of the Aspen tree is used in the manufacture of matches, saunas, chopsticks, and treating some simple and regular ailments. Aspens are distributed all over the temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere, in the forest, mountains, valleys, and parks. They grow near water as well.

The ideal growing conditions for the Aspen tree are sunny weather, moist, but well-drained soil.

It has this unique ability to survive forest fire and regrow after the devastation.

Aspen tree identification

Identification of the Aspen tree is possible by looking out for the unique characteristics in the leaves, bark, and the unmistakable ‘eye’ of the Aspen tree.


Aspen Leaf

If the leaves of a tree shimmer and rustle at the slightest wind, you are most probably looking at the Aspen tree. The Aspen leaf has a very long flat stalk and the leaves are round in shape. The width of the leaves may be 2 ½ to 3 inches, depending upon the species. It has rounded/pointed serrations on the margins of the leaves. Because of the long stalk and shape of the leaf, even a gentle wind rustles up all the leaves of the tree, and it creates a prominent rustling sound. The underside of the leaf has a silvery shade, as opposed to the dark green on the upper part of the leaf. As the leaf rustles and moves, this silvery shimmer cannot go unnoticed. The whole tree shimmers in the light, and that accompanying sound is a sure identifier of the Aspen tree.


European Aspen Bark

The bark of the growing and young trees is greenish-white in color and generally are smooth to touch. If you rub your palm vigorously on the trunk, your palm will pick up whitish powder from the trunk. This powder possesses medicinal properties and was used to treat some medical conditions by the original inhabitants of those places.

As the tree gets a little older, the bark gets a little rough and develops furrows.

Eyes of the Aspen

Aspen Eye

If you look at the trunk of the Aspen tree, you can see several ‘eye’ formations on the trunk. Very surprising but equally true, these formations look exactly like the human eye, right up to the eyeball. You can find them all over the trunk at the lower height. If you are looking at an Aspen tree, there is no way you can miss seeing these eyes.

Size and structure

The Aspen tree grows up straight and upright. It does not have any branches on the lower part of the stem. You should be able to see the leaves as a crown only on the upper part of the tree.

A typical Aspen tree will be 40 -50 feet tall, with the leaves spread out to 25 feet in width.

Found in group

You can rarely see an Aspen tree in solitude. They are always in groups. Many Aspen trees will grow in close proximity to one another, because of the root propagation of the Aspen tree.

If the tree under observation exhibits all these features, it should be an Aspen tree.

What does the name Aspen mean?

The name Aspen is as mysterious as the tree itself. It is probably the most loved and also the most hated tree at the same time.

The tree definitely has a history and a prominent place in the local folklore. The name Aspen is assigned different meanings, depending on how the tree is perceived.

One of the most straightforward meanings of the Aspen tree is a quaking or shivering tree, that is of great help and considered to be a gift of God.

One belief is that the name Aspen originated from the English word ‘æspe’ and it indicates a type of the poplar tree, whose leaves flutter vigorously at the slightest sweep of breeze.

Greeks know Aspen as aspis, which means a shield and true to the word meaning the Celts did use the wood of the Aspen tree to make protective shields for the battles. In addition to protection from injury, Aspen protects the people from spiritual mishaps and trauma also. It was prevalent to live close to the Aspen tree or plant the tree near inhabitations.

In the Pagan culture, the Aspen tree was taken as a Goddess tree with mystical and supernatural powers and was associated with the planet Mercury. It has magical powers to alleviate fear and transform the traumatic life of a person. The ancient civilization firmly believed in the powers of the Aspen tree to bring transformation in people’s life. The Aspen tree and leaves represent wisdom.  

What is unique about Aspen trees?  

The Aspen tree has a compelling character and aura. An air of mysticism surrounds the Aspen tree. It is an extraordinary tree, and the following uniqueness adds to it specialties;

The roots of the Aspen tree can grow up to 40 feet in diameter and grow out many suckers, which develop into the clone of the tree. One Aspen tree can create a large number of clones around it, and in due course of time, a whole forest gets generated out of the common underground root system.

A living example of such a massive clone is visible on the southwest bank of Fish lake, in Sevier county of Utah. It is known as Pando and covers 106 acres. It is the biggest Aspen clone and single most massive living organism on the Earth. The whole forest of Aspen tree, in question, has grown out of a substantial underground common root system. The individual trees seen above ground are just parts of the massive root organism. The root system can stay dormant for a very long time and grow out trees when the conditions are conducive. One tree is known as one stand, and the root is capable of growing hundreds of stands, which are, in fact, the clone of the original tree. It will look and behave exactly the same way.

The Aspen tree has a unique ability to grow in winters also, despite losing all its leaves. It is because the Aspen tree trunk has a photosynthetic layer, and it synthesis food with the help of sunlight. The trunks of the Aspen tree make the food in the form of sugar. It gets stored in the trunk itself. During the winters, the deer and other animals gnaw and eat the trunk, which tastes very sweet. The tree trunk of a deciduous tree making food for itself and the animals is a unique feature of the Aspen tree.

The unique shape and disposition of the Aspen tree leaf make it shimmer and rustle with the gentlest of the breeze. Being surrounded by Aspen trees and listening to the rustling leaves is a spiritual experience. People have found answers to their life problems in these rustling sounds. The sound of the leaves brings peace and calmness to mind and soul.

Aspen tree is associated with lots of spiritual and ritualistic benefits;

In ancient Greek civilization, people wore crowns made out of Aspen trees.

They believed in the magical powers of the Aspen crown to protect them from evil spirits and calamities.

The wood of the Aspen tree is said to possess magical powers to destroy vampires and werewolves.

To improve the cognitive and oratory skill, the original inhabitants of the area kept an Aspen leaf under their tongue while they talked.

Which is the most popular Aspen tree?

Like any other tree, Aspen also has different varieties of trees. The following six variations of the trees are common:

  • Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)
  • Korean Aspen (Populus davidiana)
  • Common/European Aspen (Populus tremula)
  • Japanese Aspen (Populus sieboldii)
  • Chinese Aspen (Populus adenopoda)
  • Bigtooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata)

Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)

Quaking Aspen

It is found on the east as well as the west coast of the USA. The name is suggestive of the tendency of its leaves to flutter at the slightest breeze. It can withstand a frigid climate and can grow even in the harsh winters of Canada.

It grows up to the height of 65-80 ft and measures 2 ½ feet in diameter at maturity

Korean Aspen (Populus davidiana)

They are equally tall trees attaining a height of almost 75 feet and a trunk diameter of 2 meters. The leaves of Korean Aspen are triangular in shape with a sharp tooth on the margin of the tree. The bark is of light color and whiter than the quaking Aspen.

Eurasian Aspen (Populus tremula)

European Aspen

Also known as the European Aspen, they have a wider spread globally. You can find them from the Arctic region to northern Africa on one side. On the other, they range from Western Europe to Japan.

Their leaves are copper brown in the spring, which turns to green, greenish-yellow during the fall.

Japanese Aspen (Populus sieboldii)

Japanese Aspen

They are all over the mountains of Japan. The Japanese Aspen grows well in damp and heavy soil. It has a unique wool textured wood with a pleasant aroma and used for several purposes.

The Japanese Aspens are not fond of great heights.

Chinese Aspen (Populus adenopoda

Chinese Aspen

This variety of Aspen is predominantly found in China on mountain slopes, on heights ranging from 300 -2500 meters above sea level. They can grow up to 90 feet in height.

The wood of Chinese Aspen is good to make selected furniture, hand tools, and carts.

Bigtooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata)

Bigtooth Aspen

It is found in the north-eastern and north-central parts of the USA and south-eastern Canada. It has large pointed teeth on the leaf margins and hence gets the name, Bigtooth Aspen. It has lovely olive green and smooth bark when the tree is young.

It grows well in flooded plains and sandy soil. And is also known as the American Aspen or White Poplar.

Amongst all the varieties of Aspen, the Quaking Aspen is the most popular. Whenever anyone discusses or thinks about Aspen, it is the Quaking Aspen that comes to the mind.

It has been a favorite for centuries and was revered by the primitive tribes as well. The quaking Aspen is taken as a goddess and worshipped for peace and calm.

But the Bigtooth Aspen is also very popular in the USA and is called the American Aspen.

Why do Aspen trees have eyes?

The most intriguing and differentiating factor of the Aspen tree is the ‘eyes’ of the Aspen trees.

As the Aspen tree grows, it self-prunes or drops the lower branches that do not receive ample sunshine. As the lower limbs fall, they leave a mark on the trunk, which has an uncanny similarity to the human eye.

When the lower branches receive less sunlight, the tree cuts off the flow of sap to these branches. The branches die and dry out, as they do not receive the life-enriching juice and eventually drop down.

The dropping of the lower branches encourages the growth of branches at the upper heights, where sufficient sunlight is available.

As folklore goes, it is a belief that the goddess tree watches over the forest and ensures that no one is troubled or harassed.

Though a rare sight, you can sometimes see tears in the eye, which is nothing but leaking sap. But the locals say that the goddess is unhappy.

How fast does an Aspen tree grow?

The Aspen tree is a moderate to a fast-growing tree with an average growth rate of 24 inches/year.

However, the growth rate depends on the growing conditions as well. The Aspen trees are known to grow well in their native ecosystem. In the urban setting, the Aspen tree is not so comfortable. The growth rate and lifespan suffer because of unnatural conditions.

Do not grow the Aspen in the home garden and parks, as it is very invasive. It can take over any piece of land within a short period.

What is the lifespan of an Aspen tree?

The Aspen tree is not just about what we see over the ground. The most prominent part of the Aspen tree is the elaborate and extensive root system that lies below the ground. Generally, the lifespan of a tree and its roots is the same. If the tree dies, the roots too are done and vice versa.

However, in the case of Aspen, the situation is very different. The tree (or the stand) may have a lifespan of 40 to 150 years, but the root system stays alive under the ground for thousands of years.

Sometimes due to unfavorable conditions, the roots may just be there waiting for the right conditions, and then it sends up the stand.

So, depending upon how we wish to see it, the lifespan of Aspen can be around 150 years or a few thousand years.

A real-life example of this is Pando. It is in the 106 acres spread at Utah, on the southwest bank of the Fish lake, where the root system is thousands of years old, but the individual stands, lives only for around 100 years.

Where do Aspen trees grow best?

The best place for the Aspens to grow is the native forest. But if you wish to plant them at your site, it needs moist, cold, well-drained soil. The soil should not be compact. It should be loose in the constitution, which will facilitate the free movement of air and water.

The Aspen tree needs sunlight, but the soil on which it is planted should not get hot. So, choose a place that shades the land, but receives good sunlight up above. If possible, the soil should be a little acidic. If the soil is alkaline, you can treat it with Sulphur to make it acidic.

The northern and eastern slopes of the hill or any elevation is okay to plant the Aspen tree. Similarly, the North and East side of your house should be suitable to plant the Aspen tree.

The Aspen tree thrives very well on higher altitudes. But if the climatic conditions are favorable, it will do well at lower heights as well.

Once the Aspen tree is planted, spread organic mulch all over the ground for a few feet in radius. Keep the mulch some inches away from the tree. The mulch will keep the soil cool and hydrated. It will also provide necessary nutrition to the growing Aspen tree.

In the summer season, deep water the Aspen tree once a week. Allow the water to flow at a very slow speed right at the feet of the tree for a long time. It allows the water to seep down into the Earth and go quite deep slowly. But check if the soil is well-drained. Excess water or waterlogging is nasty for the roots of the Aspen tree.

How far apart do you plant Aspen trees? 

You may not need to plant several Aspen trees as they propagate very fast by throwing up the suckers from the roots. But if you need to plant more trees adjacent to one another, plant them at a distance that equals to half the width of the canopy.

For example, if the final width of the Aspen tree foliage is to be 25 -30 feet, keep a distance of at least 12 -15 feet (half of the foliage width) from the nearest tree.

Since the root system of the Aspen tree is very robust and energetic, it is a good idea to add a couple of feet more to the above calculations.

In the case of Aspen tree, once the first tree is established, it grows out its clones, from the root system, so fast, that the challenge turns to control them, rather than to grow.

Plant the Aspen tree very far from the constructed structure. Best is not to have them around your house or any construction.

Are Aspen tree roots invasive?

Yes, the Aspen tree roots are very invasive in nature. They have a sucking and rhizomatic root system that spreads far and wide in search of water and nutrients.

In the case of Aspen, the roots are strong and resilient to survive without any overground growth. They are built in a way to survive the most challenging environment, and with favorable conditions, they expand very fast.

The Aspen tree scores very well on both the counts, in terms of damage done by the roots and ability to take over and spread fast on the land.