Straight, upright trunks with pale creamy-beige bark support the narrowly pyramid-like branch silhouette of the quaking aspen tree (Populus tremuloides). Two features of note involve its leaves---they rattle and "quake" in the wind, and they turn an alluring yellow in autumn. Grow the aspen in sunny locations in the garden in nearly any soil type, in U.S. Department of Agriculture winter hardiness zones 1 through 7.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, quaking aspen has the largest natural range of all trees on the North American continent. It extends from Alaska eastward across most of Canada to Newfoundland and Labrador. In the lower United States, it grows in pockets in the Intermountain West and in a widespread region from Minnesota eastward to Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maine. There are even localized stands in the higher elevations of the central Mexican mountains.
Quaking aspen is fast-growing and short-lived (no more than 50 years), although rejuvenating clusters of thickets called clones can endure for centuries. Under ideal conditions, the trees may grow 120 feet tall, but more commonly aspens are seen at a mature size of 65 to 80 feet and a width of 30 feet. In early spring, the different gendered flowers called catkins appear on the branch tips, most often on separate trees. Male catkins are grayish-red, while female catkins are green; both are pendent and 2 to 3 inches long. The rounded to oval glossy leaves emerge bronze in mid-spring and mature to dark green. Breezes "rattle" the leaf blade, giving rise to the common name quaking aspen. In autumn, the leaves turn brilliant yellow, though some trees may display more orange or orange-red colors.
The spreading roots of an aspen tree create a broad network, stabilizing the soil. These roots sprout suckering shoots that provide food to foraging animals from rabbits to deer. Domesticated sheep and cattle also feed on shoots. If the shoots are not continually eaten back to stubs, they grow into additional trees---all connected to other trees via the root-system matrix. Both game and songbirds use aspen trees for cover and brooding, and beavers often fell trees for dam building. Buds, flowers and seeds are edible for a wide range of birds and mammals.
Across their natural range, numerous fungal diseases and viruses can inflict harm on trees. While aspens are usually killed by wildfires, they often regenerate from their roots. Damage to tree trunks and branches can lead to infestation of canker. Many species of insect borers can create holes in trees, but the trees typically survive if not already unhealthy or weakened by drought.
Quaking aspen is an adaptable and reliable ornamental shade tree for regions with extremely cold winters. Wood products from aspen include pulp, flakeboard, particleboard, lumber, studs, veneer, plywood and shingles. The wood also makes good sauna benches and playground equipment because it does not splinter.