Populus balsmifera : Balsam Poplar


Scientific Name:

Kingdom: Plantae


Class: Dicoteldonae (two seed-leaves)

Family: Salicaceae (Willow Family)

Genera: Populus (Poplar) (Lat. classic latin name for poplar trees)

Species: balsmifera (Lat. balsam=the freagrant gum of these trees + ferra=to bear)

Synonym(s): P.tacamahacca, P.trichocarpa

English Name(s):

Balsam Poplar, Cottonwood

First Nation Names:




  • Bark on young tree and on branches smooth, white-greenish in colour.
  • Old bark dark and deeply furrowed (groved).
  • Tall tree 10-15 meters tall. (sometimes to 25 meters tall).
  • Trunk diameter not usually greater than 50cm.


Reproductive Parts:

  • Dioecious plants (unisexual plants).
  • Female catkins 6-16cm long, 2-3 stigmas (polin recepticles).
  • Flowers born in catkins.
  • Male catkins 6-12cm long, with 12-60 stamens per flower.


  • Capsules (dry fruit) 2-3 chambered 4-7 mm long.
  • Seeds are only viable for a few days.
  • Seeds are spread by the wind and are reported to travel up to 30 km.

Not to Be Confused With:

  • Populus tremuloides is the only similar species in our area. The leaves of P.tremuloides have a flat petiole (stalk). P.balsamifera has a round petiole (stalk).
  • When holding a leaf of P.balsamifera (Balsam Poplar) by its petiole (stalk), it will roll between two fingers. The leaf of P.tremuloides (Trembling Aspen) will not roll between your fingers.



  • Many poplar trees in a stand may actually be multiple trunks of a single tree.
  • One can tell if poplars in a stand are clones or separate trees by the timing of the budding of leaves, bearing of catkins, and colouring of leaves in the autumn. All the trees of a single clone will do these things at the same time as eachother.
  • The resin of this tree has a pleasant balsamic fragrance.
  • The seeds are only viable for a short time so most reproduction occurs vegitatively by suckers (shoots from roots).

Life Cycle:

  • Fast growing tree lives about 80 years.

Seasonal Cycle:

  • Catkins born late spring, early in the growing season.
  • Leaves deciduous (dieing back) turning yellow in the autumn.


Animal Uses:

  • Bees use the sticky fragrant resin from the young leaves and buds to waterproof their hives.
  • Often older or dead trees become hollowed out. Many animals and birds make thier home in these trees.
  • Poplars are the preferred food of beavers.


  • A common floodplain species. Found at margins of lakes, creeks, and rivers.




  • Are used as paper pulp.
  • Wood is used comercially for making toothpicks.
  • The Buds called 'Balm of Gilead Buds' were imported into Europe under the name 'Tacomahaca'.


  • 5ml of buds boiled in 250ml water is said to provide a soothing, stimulating drink that helps to bring up phlegm from the lungs.
  • Astringents salicin and populin in the inner bark undoubtedly draw cuts together and speed healing.
  • Buds and inner bark have karatolytic, antibacterial and fungicidal properties.
  • Dried, ground bark is used as a drying powder for sores.
  • Leaves crushed are used as an antiseptic.
  • Resin from buds is used in cough syrups, soothing ointments and plasters.
  • Salve from buds is used on rashes, sores, persistent eczima and frostbite. It can also be applied around the nose to relieve congestion, bronchitis and inflamation of the mucus membranes.
  • The inclusion of herbs such as Petasites (Coltsfoot) and Stellaria (Chickweed) are said to increase the strength of balsam salve.
  • The inner bark is said to contain a quinine substitute.
  • To make salve collect buds when it is cool so they are not sticky. Cover buds with oil or vaseline warm over low heat (do not boil) for at least 20 minutes. Then strain, cool and use.


  • The inner bark can be eaten as emergency food or dried and ground to flour.
  • The sap can be drunk or boiled down into a syrup.

Traditional Gwich'in:



    • Boiling the buds in water causes the resin to collect on the side of the pot. This can be then used as glue on its own or mixed with spruce pitch.
    • Can bait beaver traps with poplar branches.
    • Poplar drift wood makes good firewood.
    • semigreen poplar is good when you need a slow burning fire. It is also good for smokng fish or moosehides.
    • The bark used to be burned and the ashes mixed into the dog food to help control worms and keep the dogs fur in good condition.
    • The wood is soft and was carved into toys, and impliments.


    • The sticky buds can be applied to a sore to aid healing.


    • Buds were collected in winter and spring and boiled in water to make a tea.

    Traditional Other:


    • In Sicily it is cutomary on solstice eve to cut down the tallest poplar and drag it through the village while shouting and beating a drum. A crowd dances and sings around the tree.
    • Inner bark was used in a smoking mixture by Plains Indians.
    • The poplar was sacred to Hercules because when bitten by a snake he found a remedy for the poison in its leaves.


    • Ashes from the burned wood was used in soap or as a soap substitute.
    • Blackfoot used the trunks for centre poles of cerimonial lodges.
    • Leaves and twigs dye wool grey, gold and brown.
    • Roots could be split and used for rope.
    • Wood has been used to make dugout canoes.


    • Roots were steeped but not boiled and the tea given every hour to pregnant mothers when close to birthing to reduce excessive flow and premature birth. (Chippewa)



      Typical leaf

      Trees in winter.

      Trees in summer.

      Illustration from: Illustrated Flora of BC

      Range Maps

      World Range: North America; From NL to AK south to CA and WI.

      Prov/State Abrev. List

      In Yukon: Widespread north to British Mountains.

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