Trees of the Adirondacks:
Bigtooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata)

Trees of the Adirondacks: Bigtooth Aspen on the Barnum Brook Trail (28 July 2012).
Trees of the Adirondacks: The upper trunk and branches of Bigtooth Aspen retain smooth, light-colored bark. Bigtooth Aspen on the Barnum Brook Trail (28 July 2012).

Bigtooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata) is a native deciduous tree, which grows throughout northeastern North America, including New York State and the Adirondack Mountains. It is also known as Largetooth Aspen, Poplar, or Popple. It is a member of the Willow family. A fast-growing, but short-lived, pioneer species, Bigtooth Aspen attains heights of 60 to 80 feet.


Identification of the Bigtooth Aspen

Trees of the Adirondack Park:  Bigtooth Aspen on the Barnum Brook Trail (28 July 2012).
Trees of the Adirondacks: As Bigtooth Aspen trees age, the bark becomes darker and more deeply furrowed, often showing an orangish inner bark. Bigtooth Aspen on the Barnum Brook Trail (28 July 2012).

Bigtooth Aspen flowers appear in April or May (depending on temperature) in drooping catkins. The seeds mature in May or June. The tiny, white, wind-borne seeds disperse before the leaves are fully expanded. Good seed crops are produced every 2 or 3 years, but light seed crops are produced annually. Bigtooth Aspen flowers and disperses seeds about one to three weeks later than Quaking Aspen in the same location.

The buds of the Bigtooth Aspen, which are covered by whitish down, open the latest of all native trees in our part of the Adirondacks. Bigtooth leaves generally emerge the first week in June. The oval leaves are simple, alternate, with a short-pointed tip and a rounded base. When they first open in the spring, they are covered by dense whitish hairs, so the trees are very easy to identify at that time. Bigtooth Aspen leaves tremble in the slightest breeze and rustle loudly in wind. In the autumn, the leaves turn golden-yellow.

As with many species, the bark appearance of Bigtooth Aspen changes with age.

  • Young Bigtooth Aspen trees have light, smooth bark, tan to yellowish or greenish gray. The bark often has an orange cast.
  • The bark of a mature Bigtooth Aspen is darker and furrowed, often showing an orangish inner bar.
  • As the tree ages further, the bark darkens further, and the furrows deepen. However, the upper trunk and branches retain a smooth and light-colored bark.
Trees of the Adirondack Park:  Bigtooth Aspen on the Bobcat Trail (11 July 2015).
Trees of the Adirondacks: Bigtooth Aspen leaves have large, rounded teeth. Bigtooth Aspen on the Bobcat Trail (11 July 2015).

Leaf shape is key to distinguishing Bigtooth Aspens from other deciduous trees.

Keys to differentiating Bigtooth Aspen from Quaking Aspen include its leaves, bark, and growth habit.

  • The leaves of both species tremble in the breeze and are very similar in shape, with rounded teeth. However, the leaves of the Bigtooth Aspen are larger than those of Quaking Aspen and have much larger teeth. Bigtooth Aspen leaves emerge from the bud about ten days later than those of the Quaking Aspen.
  • The Bigtooth Aspen is significantly larger than Quaking Aspen. Quaking Aspen trees rarely exceed 20" in diameter, while Bigtooth Aspen may reach 30".
  • The bark of young Bigtooth Aspen trees is darker than that of Quaking Aspen. Moreover, the dark bark of mature Bigtooth Aspen contrasts with that of the mature Quaking Aspen, which features blackish furrows and much lighter-colored ridges.

Uses of the Bigtooth Aspen

Bigtooth Aspen wood is light-colored, straight-grained, finely-textured, and soft. It is primarily used for pulp. The wood is also used to make particle board and structural panels. Minor uses include log homes, pallets, boxes, match splints, chopsticks, hockey stick components, and ladders. Bigtooth Aspen bark is pelletized for fuel and supplemental cattle feed.

Bigtooth Aspen has a very limited number of edible uses. The inner bark reportedly can be dried, ground into a powder, and used as a thickener in soups. Medicinal uses of Bigtooth Aspen are also limited. Native Americans have reportedly used the bark for treating rheumatism and fevers. The Iroquois are said to have used dust from the bark to relieve itching.

Wildlife Value of the Bigtooth Aspen

Birds of the Adirondack Park:  Ruffed Grouse near the picnic pavilion at the VIC (7 May 2013).
Birds of the Adirondacks: Bigtooth Aspen is particularly important to the Ruffed Grouse, providing both food and cover. Ruffed Grouse near the picnic pavilion at the VIC (7 May 2013)

Bigtooth Aspen provides both food and cover for wildlife. Aspen suckers are a favored winter food of Moose and are heavily browsed by White-tailed Deer. American Beaver eat the bark, leaves, twigs, and branches, and use the branches as construction material for lodges and dams. Cottontail Rabbit and Meadow Vole gnaw on the bark of saplings during the winter. Bigtooth Aspen buds are also eaten by the Fox Squirrel and Red Squirrel. The latter also uses the cavities (which form as the tree grows older) as dens.

Bigtooth Aspen is a host to many kinds of insects. The tree is a caterpillar host for the Canadian Tiger SwallowtailWhite Admiral, and Modest Sphinx. The caterpillars of the Virgin Moth and other moths also feed on these trees.

Bigtooth Aspen trees are present in the breeding habitat for many birds, including VeeryMourning WarblerBlack-and-white WarblerGolden-winged WarblerNashville WarblerCanada WarblerRed-breasted NuthatchRed-eyed Vireo, and Philadelphia Vireo. As a Bigtooth Aspen tree becomes older, it often forms cavities that are used as nest sites by the Red-breasted Nuthatch, owls, and woodpeckers.

The Bigtooth Aspen is particularly important to the Ruffed Grouse. Aspen provides the basic habitat for this bird over much of its range. Ruffed Grouse feed on the leaves in the summer, flower buds in the winter, and catkins prior to the breeding season. The trees also provide crucial cover.

Distribution of the Bigtooth Aspen

Bigtooth Aspen primarily occurs in the northeastern United States, southeastern Canada, and the Great Lakes Region. Its range extends from Virginia north to Maine and Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia; west to southeastern Manitoba and Minnesota; south through Iowa to extreme northeastern Missouri; and east through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia.

In New York State, Bigtooth Aspen grows in most counties in the eastern portion of the state. With the exception of Fulton County, Bigtooth Aspen is present in all counties within the Adirondack Park Blue Line.

Habitat of the Bigtooth Aspen

Bigtooth Aspen is a shade-intolerant pioneer species. It cannot successfully reproduce under its own shade. Look for this species in successional forests, after fire or logging. It is also found in successional fields, roadsides, and forest edges, as well as stream banks and openings in forests. While capable of growing on a wide range of sites, Bigtooth Aspen is far less adaptable than Quaking Aspen and is not as abundant. Bigtooth Aspen usually grows in mixed stands, most commonly with Quaking Aspen.

Adirondack Tree List


References

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New York Flora Association.  New York Flora Atlas. Big-toothed Aspen. Populus grandidentata Michx. Retrieved 7 March 2017.

United States Department of Agriculture. Forest Service. Silvics of North AmericaBigtooth Aspen. Retrieved 19 April 2016.

United States Department of Agriculture. Forest Service. Fire Effects Information System (FEIS)Populus grandidentata. Retrieved 19 April 2016.

United States Department of Agriculture. The Plants Database. Bigtooth Aspen.  Populus grandidentata Michx.  Retrieved 6 March 2017.

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New York State. Department of Environmental Conservation. New York Natural Heritage Program. Ecological Communities of New York State. Second Edition (March 2014), pp. 101-102, 125. Retrieved 17 October 2015.

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The Birds of North America. Golden-winged WarblerRed-breasted NuthatchMourning WarblerNashville WarblerRed-eyed VireoBlack-and-White WarblerCanada WarblerRuffed GrouseVeery, and Philadelphia Vireo. Subscription Web Site. Retrieved 21 April 2016.

Butterflies and Moths of North America. Canadian Tiger SwallowtailWhite AdmiralModest Sphinx. Retrieved 19 April 2016.

Paul E. Slabaugh. Silvical Characteristics of Bigtooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata). (United States Department of Agriculture. Forest Service, 1958). Retrieved 21 April 2016.

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Bruce Kershner, et al. National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Trees of North America (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 2008), p. 398.

David Allen Sibley. The Sibley Guide to Trees (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), p. 231.

 

Trees of the Adirondack Mountains

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