You’ve heard of aspen, birch, and poplar, right? Do you know the difference between them?
(The thought occurred to me that I haven’t said much about the trees here on the Bluff. Now seems a good time, with the leaves changing color.)
So, then. Aspen and poplar are actually the same thing; or rather, the aspen (Populus tremuloides) is a type of poplar, which means it’s also related to the cottonwood. (A good friend of mine builds rustic chairs as a hobby, and he says if you harvest aspen limbs at the wrong time in the spring, you might come back to your work a week later to find fluff all around where you put them! They don’t look like they’re shedding seed fluff like the cottonwood, but they really do.). Since they come as male and female trees – and both are needed to create fertile seeds – they typically grow out through the root, creating colonies of clones, stretching up tall and straight in clusters. Their leaves are kinda spade-shaped – like on playing cards – with round edges, and they catch even the lightest of breezes, trembling and fluttering when all the trees around them are dead still. Hence the ‘tremuloides’ part of the name! In the fall, they mostly turn a bright yellow.
Birch is a hardwood of the family Betulaceae, which means it’s related to Alders and Hazels. They’re considered a “pioneer” species, so they move in and establish themselves very quickly on any available open ground. But while they grow stands (lots of trees clustered together), they aren’t growing out from the same rhizome like the poplar. The leaves are simple and alternate, with serrated edges, and they usually come in pairs. In the fall, they turn shades of yellow to orange, which contrasts prettily with the stark white and speckled black of their trunks. Birch is valued for its wood, pale and fine-grained, often with a satin-like sheen to it. It’s a tough wood to work with hand tools, though!