Populus balsamifera

Balsam Poplar

Balsam Poplar

Balsam Poplar
Photo courtesy USDA Plants Database
and Lynden Gerdes

Flora, fauna, earth, and sky...
The natural history of the northwoods


  • Populus, from the Latin for poplar
  • balsamifera, from the Latin, "balsam-bearing"
  • Common Name from its sticky, resinous, and strongly aromatic buds.
  • Other common names include Balm Of Gilead, Balm Poplar, Black Poplar, Black Cottonwood, Hackmatack, Tacamahac, Peuplier baumier (Qué), Mirisljava topola (Yug), Palsamipoppeli (Fin), Balsampoppel (Swe), Balsam-Pappel (Ger)


  • Kingdom Plantae, the Plants
    • Division Magnoliophyta, the Angiosperms (flowering plants)
      • Class Magnoliopsida, the Dicotyledons
      • Subclass Dilleniidae
        • Order Salicales
          • Family Salicaceae, the Willows, with aspen and poplars
            • Genus Populus, the Poplars
  • Taxonomic Serial Number: 22453
  • Also known as Populus candicans, Populus michauxii, Populus tacamahaca
  • Hybridizes with Narrowleaf Cottonwood (Populus angustifolia), Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides), and rarely with Aspen (Populus tremuloides)


  • A medium to large deciduous tree to 100' in height.
  • Leaves alternate, simple, oval or broadly lanceolate, 2¼"-4½" long and 1½"-3" wide, with finely toothed edges and sharply pointed tip; shiny green above and pale green below, often marked with brown, petiole long with glands at the leaf base. Yellow fall color.
  • Stem
    • Trunk straight and cylindrical, 4"-24" in diameter.
    • Branches few, stout and ascending, forming an open crown.
    • Twigs relatively stout, round, shiny dark brown to red brown with orange lenticels. Buds are reddish-brown to brown, long (1 inch), curved, resinous and fragrant. Twig has a bitter aspirin taste, for those so inclined. (Remember: Poplar = Family Salicaceae; Aspirin = acetylsalicylic acid, a derivative salicylic acid, first extracted from willow bark, also of Family Salicaceae).
    • Buds sticky, resinous, and strongly aromatic.
    • Bark smooth and light grey to grey brown, growing thick, dark, and furrowed with long, scaly ridges with age.
  • Roots shallow, especially on wet soils. Susceptible to windthrow.
  • Flowers Dioecious. The male trees bear smaller catkins, than the female trees.
  • Fruit a small, 2-valved, dry capsule containing numerous small seeds.
  • Seed small and tan (0.3 mg or 0.005 gr); lacking an endosperm at maturity.


  • The only "Poplar" native to the North Woods, Identifiable by its
  • Distinguished from the closely related Aspens by its longer, narrower leaf.


  • Alaska to Labrador and Newfoundland. Forms extensive floodplain forests north and east of the Great Plains.


  • Moist boreal forest sites, including river floodplains, stream and lake shores, moist depressions, and swamps, but also some drier sites.
  • Glacial moraines in the northern boreal forest commonly support stands of balsam poplars.
  • Soils those of alluvial floodplains, including gravel, deep sand, clay loam, silt, and silty loam.
  • Abundant soil moisture needed; stagnant brackish water intolerable.
  • High nutrient requirements, especially calcium and magnesium. Does not tolerate deep acidic peats and humus with slow release of nutrients.
  • Pioneer species invading disturbed wet sites by seed or suckering.
  • Growth among the fastest in temperate latitudes. Rapid early growth allows it to establish and dominate for up to 100 years.
  • Highly flood tolerant; able to form adventitious roots within a few days of a flood.
  • A successional species, eventually shaded out by other hardwoods or conifers. Does not grow well in the shade of other species.
  • In eastern North America, balsam poplar is found mainly in mixed stands where other species dominate.
  • Throughout Northwestern Ontario. In the region, balsam poplar occurs on sites that are relatively rich in nutrients and less acidic, and in relatively small, localized stands, in association with black and white spruce, balsam fir and trembling aspen. In the open, subarctic woodlands, balsam poplar and white spruce form the only closed forests.


  • Severe fires kill tree but underground parts survive in moist soils. Moderate fires may top-kill some trees, especially thin barked younger trees, while light fires usually do no harm. Repeated burning may permanently exclude Balsam Poplars.
  • One of the best adapted to fire in the northern boreal forest. Ability to produce sprouts from roots, stumps, and buried branches enables quick recovery after fire. Colonizes large burn areas due to seed dispersal distances and its ability to regenerate vegetatively. The bark of older trees can be up to 4" thick at the base for improved fire protection.
  • Stimulated to produce root suckers within seveal weeks following fire. Active recovery likely to begin 1 year after fire. Has an explosive recovery rate even after severe fires.


  • Trees: Red Maple (Acer rubrum), Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea), Black Ash (Fraxinus nigra), Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides), American Elm (Ulmus americana)
  • Shrubs: Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea), Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum), Bearberry (Arctostaphyllos uva-ursi), Honeysuckle (Lonicera involucrata), Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta), American cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum), highbush cranberry (V edule), red raspberry (Rubus idaeus var. canadensis and strigosus), Prickly Rose (Rosa acicularis), Mountain Cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), Devil's Club (Oplopanax horridum), and Red Currant (Ribes triste).
  • Herbs: Horsetails (Equisetum arvense, E. pratense), Bluejoint Reedgrass (Calamagrostis canadensis), Bedstraws (Galium boreale, G. triflorum), Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), Panicle Bluebells (Mertensia paniculata), Red Baneberry (Actaea rubra), Pink Pyrola (Pyrola asarifolia), Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), Butterbur (Petasites spp.), and Bishops Cap (Mitella spp.).
  • Ground Covers:various feathermosses (e.g., Hylocomium splendens, Pleurozium schreberi) and lichens
  • Mammals: Eaten by moose, deer, and snowshoe hare in small amounts, with moose stripping bark in times of winter food shortage. Used by beavers for food and building materials. Fire-induced sprouting can increase forage for moose. Beaver also benefit from an increased supply of poplar sprouts following fire.
  • A variety of animals browse balsam poplar, particularly during times of food shortage. Attracts: rodents, hares, beaver, moose, deer, elk, ruffed grouse


  • Burns well and was used to make friction fire sets.
  • Ashes were used to make a cleanser for hair and buckskin clothing.
  • The Thompson people produced soap from the inner bark. The Hudson's Bay Company reportedly continued using their method, combining the inner bark with tallow.
  • Native Americans used resin from buds to treat sore throats, coughs, lung pain, and rheumatism. An ointment, Balm of Gilead, was made from the winter buds to relieve congestion.


  • Natural stands are generally described as underutilized, but its use is increasing as hardwood utilization increases in the mixed-wood section of the boreal forest. Although the wood can be used for a variety of products (for example, pulp, veneer, core stock, boxes, crates, brackets), species such as aspen and cottonwood are preferred. Waferboard with excellent mechanical qualities can be produced from balsam poplar; however, special procedures are needed to efficiently waferize the wood. In northern areas, balsam poplar is used for structural lumber and milled house logs when other species are not available.
  • Pulpwood, lumber and veneer, and high-grade paper and particle board. Also used to make boxes and crates. The short, fine fibres are used in tissues and other paper products.
  • Wood light and soft with mineral streaks of brown and grey. Once considered "weed" species, furniture makers have come to appreciate the wood for carving, veneer, plywood and panelling.
  • Buds contain a waxy resin with disinfectant properties still used in some modern natural health ointments. Bees collect resin and use it to seal off intruders, such as mice, which might decay and infect the hive.
  • Balsam poplar is used for house logs, boxes, crates, brackets, veneer, corestock, and pulp
  • Balsam poplar is a wide-ranging deciduous species of northern, transcontinental distribution. In fact, balsam poplar is the northernmost occuring of all North American hardwoods. Like other poplars, balsam poplar is fast growing, browsed by wildlife and useful for a variety of wood products.


  • Seed production begins at about 8 years, with a good crop every year.
  • Dispersal by wind before leaves completely emerge; within 650' of the parent tree.
  • Germination: Seeds remain viable 2-4 weeks but will germinate immediately following arrival on a suitable seedbed of exposed, moist mineral soil. Seedlings require 1 month of abundant moisture to survive.
  • Vegetative reproduction from root suckers, stump sprouts, stem sprouts, and buried branches.


  • By seed.


  • Hardy to USDA Zone 3 (average minimum annual temperature -40ºF)
  • Cultural Requirements
    • Sun
    • Soil, pH 4.5 - 7.0



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Last updated on 4 March, 2006