A hearty, fast-growing, deciduous tree, the balsam poplar—also called the Balm of Gilead—is native to North America. You’ll see it growing primarily in the eastern U.S., across much of Canada, and into Alaska, often near floodplains or natural water sources.
The balsam poplar is part of the Salicaceae family, along with aspen and willow trees. If you’re seeking an easy-to-grow tree that thrives through wintery weather and doesn’t require a lot of fuss, consider this ancient tree.
Before bringing your tree home, choose a spot away from buildings, in an open area where it will get plenty of sunshine. When transporting it home, wrap the leaf canopy to prevent it from drying out, and wrap the trunk to protect it against scrapes and bark damage.
You can slide the tree out of the vehicle onto a wheelbarrow or kids’ wagon to safely move it to its planting location. Always handle the tree by its root ball, not its trunk.
Soil pH is an important factor for the tree and its growth. The balsam poplar performs best between 6.5 and 7.5. If you’re not sure of your soil’s pH, you can purchase a test kit at a home and garden center. Add some compost to the soil before planting to give your tree a healthy start.
Although it can tolerate partial sun, the balsam poplar prefers full sunlight and will not grow in areas where there is heavy shade throughout the day. Plant your sapling away from other large shade trees or buildings that could inhibit the amount of sunshine it receives during the day.
Ideally, the balsam poplar prefers to grow near lakes, rivers, or other freshwater sources. Of course, this isn’t always possible, but it doesn’t mean you can’t grow one of these beautiful trees in your yard.
As long as you water regularly and don’t let the soil dry out between waterings, your tree should flourish. Check the soil around the tree often and make sure it stays moist.
Unlike slow-developing trees, the balsam poplar grows at a fast rate, so it doesn’t need a lot of special nutrients unless the soil is in poor condition.
Adding compost can improve this factor. If your tree isn’t thriving, apply a well-balanced fertilizer each spring to improve growth. Adding an extra layer of mulch around the tree’s base in the fall helps protect its root system throughout the winter.
The balsam poplar does not like warmer temperatures. It requires the cooler temperatures found in USDA hardiness zones 2 through 7, primarily in the northern and central sections of the country. The tree is frost tolerant and handles freezing temperatures extremely well.
If you live outside of these zones, it may be best to invest in a different type of tree more suited to your local environment.
Because it can grow between five to eight feet each year, the balsam poplar quickly develops a strong root system, so keep an eye out for suckers emerging from the soil.
The trees grow in an oval shape. Prune limbs between late winter and early spring to help maintain this look. Young trees are easy to prune, but because the balsam poplar can quickly surge to heights of up to 100 feet, you may need to call in a professional to handle taller branches.
Between January and mid-April, people harvest the large, pointed buds that sprout on the balsam poplar’s limbs. These buds give off a gummy, red resin that emits a pleasant but strong balsam scent. In holistic circles, it is believed to have antibacterial and anti-infective properties.
Healers traditionally used the resin to create topical ointments for cuts, insect bites, and rashes and to relieve pain and inflammation. However, the buds are also potential leaves and new branches, so if you choose to harvest them, don’t remove them all. Leave the majority on the tree to encourage growth.
You can easily grow new balsam poplar trees from suckers, cuttings, or seeds. Suckers will first appear in the spring and that’s the best time to gather them for planting. To propagate, loosen the soil around the sucker, then cut it—along with its root system—from the tree. Plant it directly into its new permanent location and keep the soil moist.
To use cuttings, harvest a seven to 12-inch piece cut below a node. Plant it in a pot with good drainage, wait for roots to form, then transplant it to its new home. For seed propagation, collect them in the spring, and plant them immediately in moist soil. Separate the seedlings into separate pots once they sprout and transplant them to their permanent home when they reach six inches in height.
Bacterial canker is a common problem for this tree. It occurs when bacteria infect a cut or wound on the trunk or branches. Yellow leaves around the infection are a telltale sign. Remedy the problem by removing the infected area, then seal it with a tree pruning sealer.
Leaf spot, an issue caused by a fungus or bacterium, can also be a problem. Remove any leaves that develop dark brown, irregular spots, and dispose of them to prevent spread.
Twig borers and gypsy moths may find their way to your balsam poplar tree. The shiny, black twig borer arrives in early spring, damaging twigs but seldom causing serious harm. You may notice wilting twigs and branches about two weeks after their arrival. You'll have to prune any infected branches.
As for gypsy moths, the best deterrent is keeping your tree healthy and well-watered.
If you’re looking for an ornamental tree that also provides shade, you’ll love the balsam poplar. As it ages, the bark evolves from a light brown to varying shades of gray, developing ridges that become more noticeable over time. Its dark green, egg-shaped leaves usually measure between three and five inches long and up to five inches wide.
Red or greenish-yellow flowers bloom, but they aren’t particularly showy. Plant colorful flowering shrubs—such as viburnum—around the trees to add pops of color to your landscape.
The trembling aspen and the paper birch trees are similar in size and foliage. Like the balsam poplar, the trembling aspen grows throughout the forested areas of Canada. However, because it has an aggressive suckering root system, it’s not recommended for most residential settings.
The paper birch tree is also native to northern climates, and like the trembling aspen, is better suited to rural settings. In the fall, the foliage transforms from a bright green to a dazzling shade of bright yellow.
In the early summer, you’ll see cottony tufts of fiber attached to seeds falling around the tree and floating on the wind. Only female trees produce these seeds. While some people look forward to the release of the white puffs, others aren’t appreciative of the amount released and the vast numbers that end up covering the ground.
Another popular use of the balsam poplar: Because the trees grow so fast, they create an excellent windbreak for rural properties.
The balsam poplar or Balm of Gilead belongs to the Salicaceae family of trees, which includes willows, cottonwoods, aspen, and poplar trees.
There are around 30 different species of poplar trees that you can choose from that are also winter-hardy, including the tulip poplar. Its leaves turn golden-yellow in the autumn, and in the spring, it emits a lovely honey-nectar smell that attracts a variety of bird species.