Trees fall into four categories in my mind. There’s the group that you would love to have in your own garden if space was not an issue. Group two are trees that you actually have in your garden. Group three are those which you would never want growing in the garden and finally there’s group four.
Group four is the group with trees that you wouldn’t grow but at particular times of the year you can appreciate them, in other gardens or other settings. The Weeping Willow falls into this category. You’d never want one in an average city lot but they’re impressive in parks and along waterways. Another group of trees that I classify as Group Four is the Poplar.
Poplars are again not a tree you’d plant in a city lot but at this time of the year, as mid-elevation hillsides on the east side of the lake are painted with bright gold amidst the pine and fir, it’s hard not to appreciate Populus tremuloides, the Quaking Aspen. Fall colour on these and their cousin Populus balsamifera trichocarpa, the Black Cottonwood, has been a spectacular golden yellow this autumn.
I pass near Sunoka Beach on my commute home. While tens of thousands of commuters in other areas of the province are watching the tail lights of traffic stopped in front of them I’m watching the slow but steady transformation of the cottonwoods as the weather cools. When the late afternoon sun illuminates the beach the effect is breathtaking.
If you’ve ever driven east towards the Kootenays in October the Quaking Aspen are putting on a similar show at higher elevations. Populus tremuloides can be problematic in an average-sized lot because their roots naturally spread by cloning. In natural environments you will find large colonies of poplars; they’re all identical, growing from the same root system. This can be a fascinating experience when you’re hiking but constantly pulling up roots in your landscape is not as enthralling!
Black cottonwood is even less desirable in a home garden setting. They can grow 25 metres tall and many of us have the image of a rotten old tree breaking apart and of millions of seeds flying through the spring air attached to cottony threads. Wildlife, especially birds, see the tree in an entirely different light. Walk along any watercourse where cottonwood are present and you’ll hear a symphony of birds. When the branches break the wood gets very soft and it’s easy for birds to make cavities for nests. When the trees fall into streams wonderful environments are created for fish and other aquatic species. The decaying leaves provide nutrients for insects, which are fed on by birds and other animals.
Native peoples had a host of uses for cottonwood and aspen bark and wood. They ate the cambium layer of the bark and they used the fluffy white seeds to fill pillows. The resin on the buds was used as ointment on cuts. Larger trees were turned into canoes.
Aggressive roots, weak wood, prodigious producer of seeds; poplars are guilty of these crimes against orderly gardening. If you’re a woodpecker, a beaver or a trout however, or someone who loves golden yellow foliage in the fall and the way an aspen quivers in a light breeze, poplars are a solid Category 4!

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