I’m patiently waiting for the balsam poplar buds to start opening. It will happen soon, and for a few days the pleasant aroma of balsam will permeate the Turtle Mountain air. For me, it’s the sweet smell of spring.
Balsam poplar, sometimes called black poplar, is a common but often unrecognized tree of the Turtle Mountain aspen forest. It can also be found in the Pembina Hills and Killdeer Mountains. Although less common elsewhere in the state, it has been documented in most counties. And as you might expect, it is also an associate of the aspen forests of our neighboring states and provinces.
The casual observer may have difficulty differentiating balsam poplar from aspen. You may notice that many of the aspen-like trees growing low on the landscape, such as around lakes and wetlands, have a darker, rougher bark. That is probably balsam poplar.
A good look at the leaves will help with identification. The leaf stalk of trembling aspen is quite flattened and thus flimsy. The slightest breeze causes the leaf to “tremble.”
The leaves of balsam poplar are noticeably different. Their leaf stalks are round and more rigid, so they don’t tremble. Also, the leaf blades tend to be more elongate with a more finely toothed margin. Once you’ve compared the two, they’re really quite easy to differentiate.
I have found another way to easily differentiate the two, even at a distance. The leaves of balsam poplar are often infested with various leaf blights and rusts that give the leaves a brownish to yellowish blotchy appearance. That generally doesn’t happen with the aspen.
But, I’ve digressed here; back to the smell of balsam. The brownish, pointed buds of balsam poplar are now growing larger, and they’re coated with a sticky resin that is the source of the smell. Around the time the buds start to break open, the resins begin to fill the air with the sweet smell of balsam.
I must confess that occasionally I’ll take one of those buds, roll it in my fingers, and then put it up to my nose to deeply inhale that sweet resiny fragrance. That smell makes my nose want to get up and dance!
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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