Quaking Aspen – Populus Tremuloides: Edible & Medicinal Uses of a Popple’r Wild Plant

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In Chippewa, asa’di means aspen. “Balm of Gilead” can be made from various poplar buds including tremuloides/quaking aspen, a common edible, medicinal and useful tree in our area.

Last month we talked about balsam poplar. But quaking aspen was my first ID’d poplar. I noticed a set of trees on the one-acre wood that softly trembled in the wind and made a rustling ASMR-ish sound. Trembling or quaking aspen does just that in the slightest wind. But despite this one bearing the name trembling, all poplar leaves quake.

Quaking aspen also reminds me more of another tree you’ll find here – large-toothed aspen lat. populus grandidentata. Grandidentata has much larger leaves and the toothedness is especially striking. The bark seems like a mix of quaking and balsam if you can tell those apart in the first place. For some reason, it took a while for my head to stop spinning in learning to ID these!

Edible Uses of Quaking Aspen

Like balsam poplar, quaking aspen can be tapped for sap and the young catkins are edible, as well as the inner bark when said sap is flowing. The pungent and bitter leaf buds are also edible, but they are more suited to the tastes of say, a ruffed grouse. All over poplar feeds hundreds of animals and other organisms – no less than 500!

Beaver Carrying Branches
A Favorite of Beavers

Boiling the early buds or bark makes an interesting tea. It’s perhaps better as an addition to an herbal tea mixture.

The ashes have been used as a salt and also like baking powder. The white powder on the bark has been used as yeast. Do they work like these staples, though? Hmmm. I will test this out in a Let’s Make article in the future!

The inner bark is rich in vitamin C.

Medicinal Uses of Quaking Aspen

Quaking Aspen is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Integumentary
  • Respiratory

Medicinal tags include Anti-inflammatory, Antiseptic, Febrifuge, and Expectorant. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage mirrors balsam poplar (but “balsam” poplar, as you might guess from the name, is much more usable to make Balm of Gilead!) To not be repetitive let’s highlight the “sunscreen” this tree is covered in. There’s a chalky powder that covers the bark which protects the trees from UV rays. It can be dabbed on as a sunscreen in a pinch (just don’t rub it in). Check out our bit on balsam poplar to learn about using the bud resins and bark.

The bark is highly esteemed against fevers, although usually, you should let a fever run its course.

Wiki has an intriguing tidbit: “Aspen bark contains a substance that was extracted by indigenous North Americans and European settlers of the western U.S. as a quinine substitute.” Quinine has made headlines given the COVID-19 crisis. Quinine itself can cause serious side effects on your heart and kidneys. The idea of poplar bark as a quinine substitute did NOT work out on the field when it was used during the civil war (click to read source). Sorry, I don’t have better reviews! Quinine was first isolated from the bark of a cinchona tree (not local to our area!)

Alternative Uses of Trembling Aspen

The wood is light, odourless and doesn’t splinter easily. It’s used in many commercial applications including the likes of bowls and chopsticks. In the spring, you could slide the bark from a branch and carve a toy whistle.

The wood can be used to smoke fish and meat.

Growing Populus Tremuloides

Like others in this family (e.g. willow) don’t plant it too close to your home as it likes to invade sewers and drain pipes. It will sucker and develop a grove of clones. There’s a trembling aspen in Utah called Pando that – get this – occupies 43 hectares (106 acres) and is estimated to be 80,000 years old. If you find the sound of rustling leaves relaxing, this is a go to native plant for some ASMR while you relax on your yard swing.


Like other poplars and willows it contains salicin, so beware if you’re allergic to Aspirin

The bud resin may irritate sensitive skin.

The bark tea may be somewhat toxic.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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An Eclectic Guide to Trees East of the Rockies

Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

Indian Herbalogy of North America: The Definitive Guide to Native Medicinal Plants and Their Uses

How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts (Native American)

Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants

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