Walking up the Byes, just past the willows that are much loved by children, is a gangly youth of a tree growing on the river’s edge with some smaller siblings close by.  This is a Western Balsam Poplar [Populus trichocarpa].

Populus trichocarpa Has glossy green leaves.
Populus trichocarpa has glossy green leaves.

Its glossy green leaves, lighter on their underside, are suspended on long red leaf stalks. So when the wind blows, the tree chatters and clatters as the leaves are buffeted this way and that.  

This tree has a very special attraction and the clue is in it’s name, Balsam,which is the sticky aromatic substance produced in abundance to coat and protect the delicate leaf buds.  Even in September, the very young buds are tacky to touch.In spring and early summer sunshine, stand still and breathe deeply. The air will be rich with the heady aroma of honey.  

Western Balsam Poplars come from West America and grow naturally from Alaska to California. There are separate male and female trees but I don’t know if my tree is a guy or gal because it has not yet reached maturity when it willproduce either red male or green female catkins. Trees attain maturity when about 10 years old. Like most poplars, the seeds are encased in fluffy white hairs hence the alternative group name of Cottonwoods. Trichocarpa, part of its Latin name, means hairy fruited referring to this cottony fluff that helps disperse the minute seeds for long distances.

Poplars are part of the Willow family and dropped branches can easily take root near by or further down stream, if growing by a river.  The trees can also grow new shoots from their roots.  So my trees’ siblings may be clones.  

The buds, coated in balsam, are thought to have healing properties and can be used in salves and oil infusions. Although not an indigenous tree, it supports ourinsects.  Wild bees can collect the balsam, which they mix with saliva, and beeswax to make bee glue used to seal unwanted gaps in their hives.  Other insects such as ants may collect balsam for its anti bacterial effects.

It was the first tree to have its entire genome sequenced, in the early noughties.   It is commercially important because of its rapid growth rate. The wood is used for the manufacture of plywood, Orientated Strand Board  [OSB is preferred to MDF in more humid environments], pallets and furniture.  

Next time you are out walking in the Byes stop by this rapidly growing tree,which could reach well over 30m, over five times its current height.  Inhale and enjoy.

Jan Metcalf

Western Balsam Poplar [Populus trichocarpa] Location Map
Western Balsam Poplar [Populus trichocarpa] Location Map … thanks to Ed Dolphin

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