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Populus

Poplar , Cottonwood, Aspen
Salicaceae
Deciduous, Trees

Fast-growing, tough trees. Grown primarily and especially appreciated in interior regions with hot summers and cold winters. They don’t do as well in mild-winter areas and in coastal climates where temperature fluctuation is minimal. Trees have aggressive surface roots that crowd out other plants, heave pavement, and clog sewer and drainage lines; best suited to rural areas and fringes of large properties. Most poplars will sucker if their roots are cut or disturbed. They are subject to many pests and diseases. Despite their liabilities, some of these trees are beautiful or distinctive enough to be widely sold. Many have good fall color. Leaves of most are roughly triangular, sometimes toothed or lobed. Pendulous catkins (denser on male trees) appear in spring before leafout. Female trees later bear masses of cottony seeds that blow about and become a nuisance; for that reason, male (seedless) varieties are the best choice and are usually offered in nurseries.

Populus alba

Native to Europe and Asia. Grows to 40–70 ft. tall and wide. The common name refers to woolly white leaf undersides and to light-colored young bark. Leaves are 2–5 in. long, usually with three to five lobes. A “lively” tree with leaves that move even in light breezes, showing flickering white and green highlights. Poor fall color. Tolerates a wide range of soils. Suckers profusely—an advantage if it is planted as a windbreak, otherwise a problem.

Populus angustifolia

Native from Alberta to Mexico, primarily in the Rocky Mountains; grows at elevations to 8,000 ft. Reaches 50–60 ft. tall and 35–45 ft. wide, with finely toothed, narrow, willowlike green leaves to 5 in. long. Young bark is green.

Populus fremontii

Native to California and the central Rockies south to Mexico. Grows to 40–60 ft. or taller and 30 ft. wide. Glossy yellow-green, coarsely toothed, virtually triangular leaves turn bright lemon yellow in fall. Leaves persist almost all winter in Zone 12. ‘Nevada’ is a male variety.

Populus tremuloides

Native throughout the mountains of the West, at elevations to 9,000 ft. Generally performs poorly or grows slowly in lowlands; usually short-lived in warmer climates. Grows to 20–60 ft. tall and 15–30 ft. wide; often grows as a multitrunked tree or in a clump. Smooth, pale gray-green to whitish bark. Dainty, roundish, 2–4-in., glossy green leaves flutter with the slightest movement of air. Brilliant golden yellow fall color. Good background tree for native shrubs and wildflowers. Apt to suffer from sudden dieback or borers.

Populus nigra ‘Italica’
Populus nigra ‘Italica’

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‘Italica’

Male selection of a European native. Beautiful columnar tree to 40–100 ft. tall and 15–30 ft. wide, with upward-reaching branches. Bright green, 4-in. leaves turn golden yellow in fall. Excellent along country driveways; valuable both as a windbreak and a skyline decoration. Healthy and attractive in cold, dry interior climates. Suckers profusely.

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