Best Native Trees that Grow in Alberta

Native trees and steps with railing at Elizabeth Hall Wetlands

Although I’ve been living on the prairies of Alberta all my life, I haven’t always appreciated the significance of the native trees that grace our province. It’s only until more recent years that I’ve realized what an important role they play! They are vital components of our ecosystem, providing food and shelter to a myriad of birds, insects, and other wildlife.

Today, I want to share with you the beauty and importance of fourteen native trees of Alberta, along with their growing requirements, unique characteristics, and the roles they play in our natural world.

  • Lodgepole Pine
  • Jack Pine
  • Black Spruce
  • White Spruce
  • Balsam Fir
  • Tamarack
  • Green Ash
  • Bur Oak
  • Trembling Aspen
  • Paper Birch
  • Pincherry
  • Plains Cottonwood
  • Balsam Poplar
  • Narrowleaf Cottonwood

Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta)

Also known as Rocky Mountain Lodgepole Pine, Black Pine, and Scrub Pine, Lodgepole Pine is Alberta’s provincial tree!

Growing Requirements
  • Moisture: Prefers well-drained soils; drought-tolerant once established. Will not tolerate flooding.
  • Sun/Shade: Full sun.
  • Height and Width at Maturity: 15-30 meters tall and 4-6 meters wide.
  • Native Areas: Widely distributed across Alberta, particularly in the foothills and boreal forest.
Unique Characteristics

Lodgepole Pine has long, slender needles and grows straight and tall. This, along with its long lifespan of 150-200 years, makes it ideal for shelterbelts. When planted in a landscape, you should plant with other species that fill out the lower area, as this pine self prunes lower branches as they are shaded out.

Ecological Role

The tree produces small, hard cones that have resin bonds which are opened with heat to allow for seed dispersal. This is why it’s common for Lodgepole Pine to be one of the first trees to colonize burned areas following forest fires.

This tree provides excellent habitat for birds and many small mammals.

Squirrels and birds such as grosbeak and grouse feed on the tree’s seeds, while nuthatches and woodpeckers seek out juicy insects under the bark.

Interestingly, bears also enjoy eating the inner bark of the Lodgepole Pine!

Pests and Disease

Deer like to browse young Lodgepole Pine, so that may be a consideration before planting it in your landscape (although if deer frequent your property, ALL young trees will certainly need protection).

There are several insects that have caused major issues for this tree, including mountain pine beetle, pine white butterfly, and western pine elfin. As well, there is a “comandra blister rust” that forms cankers on the stems that could kill the tree.

For more in depth information about Lodgepole Pine, click here.

Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana)

Also known as Banksian Pine, Gray Pine, Scrub Pine.

Growing Requirements
  • Moisture: Prefers dry, sandy soils but is adaptable to various conditions.
  • Sun/Shade: Full sun. Intolerant of shade.
  • Height and Width at Maturity: 9-22 meters tall and 4-6 meters wide.
  • Native Areas: Across Alberta, especially in the boreal forest and sandy areas, rocky outcrops.
Unique Characteristics

Jack Pine is known for its irregular, twisted shape and long, slender needles. It can be a fairly ragged-looking tree.

Like the Lodgepole Pine, its cones are serotinous, opening and dispersing seeds only in response to heat from forest fires.

Jack Pine will sometimes hybridize with Lodgepole Pine.

Ecological Role
Like the Lodgepole Pine, this tree provides habitat for many birds and small mammals. It also is a pioneer species following forest fires, and plays an important role in reforestation.

Pests and Diseases

There are multiple different pests and diseases that can harm this and other Canadian forest trees; find a list of them here.

Black Spruce (Picea mariana)

Also known as Bog Spruce or Swamp Spruce.

Growing Requirements
  • Moisture: Usually grows in wet, poorly-drained soils; will grow larger in better drained soil. Cannot handle drought.
  • Sun/Shade: Full sun to partial shade. Prefers sheltered areas.
  • Height and Width at Maturity: 10-15 meters tall and 4-5 meters wide.
  • Native Areas: Boreal forest and wetlands across northern Alberta.
Unique Characteristics

Black Spruce has short, bluish-green needles and small, round cones. It often grows in dense stands and can tolerate cold, wet conditions better than many other trees.

Ecological Role

This tree provides habitat for birds such as warblers. Chickadees and squirrels, among other species, eat seeds from Black Spruce cones, and the tree is browsed by mammals such as the Snowshoe Hare and moose.

Along with most other evergreen trees, especially those in forests, Black Spruce provides shelter for larger mammals as well. These may include the black bear, moose, deer, etc.

Pests and Disease

Black Spruce can be susceptible to spruce budworm. See White Spruce for more details.

White Spruce (Picea glauca)

Also known as Alberta Spruce, Alberta White Spruce, Black Hills Spruce, Canadian Spruce, Cat Spruce, Porsild Spruce, Skunk Spruce, Western White Spruce.

White Spruce growing on yard in Alberta prairies.
Growing Requirements
  • Moisture: Prefers moist, well-drained soils but is adaptable.
  • Sun/Shade: Full sun to partial shade.
  • Height and Width at Maturity: 20-25 meters tall and 5-7 meters wide.
  • Native Areas: Across Alberta, especially in the boreal forest and foothills.
  • Other: Should be sheltered from wind. More tolerant of grass growing at base than other tree varieties.
Unique Characteristics

White Spruce has blue-green needles and a conical shape, making it popular for landscaping. Its cones are slender and hang gracefully from the branches.

It’s an extremely hardy tree that can withstand very low temperatures. Because it’s quite adaptable and excellent for supporting all kinds of wildlife, I recommend this tree for your native landscape! Just be sure not to plant it near power lines, because it does slowly grow to be a very large tree.

Ecological Role

White Spruce is considered a “climax canopy tree” of the boreal forests. This means it is the end point of the succession of species that grows following disturbance such as forest fires.

The seed of this spruce is the main food source of the White-winged Crossbill, among other birds, as well as squirrels and other small mammals such as voles and deer mice. Several lepidoptera (butterfly/moth) species rely on this tree as well.

Deer, rabbits, and grouse will browse on White Spruce foliage during winter.

White Spruce provides habitat for many different types of mammals, especially in the forests where it is prevalent. Some of these include the snowshoe hare and squirrels, and many types of birds.

Pests and Disease

One main pest of White Spruce is the spruce budworm, which will kill the tree after 4-5 years of defoliation. An outbreak of this budworm can cause massive damage to huge areas of forest (up to tens of millions of hectares!), and the outbreak cycle usually occurs every 30-40 years.

Never fear, though; there are a few methods to get rid of them in your home garden. Visit this website for more information.

The spruce beetle is another pest that causes significant damage to trees. Most other insect pests do not appreciably damage trees.

Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)

Growing Requirements
  • Moisture: Prefers moist, well-drained soils.
  • Sun/Shade: Full sun to partial shade.
  • Height and Width at Maturity: 15-25 meters tall and 4-5 meters wide.
  • Native Areas in Alberta: Throughout the boreal forest and foothills of Alberta.
Unique Characteristics

Balsam Fir has a narrow, conical shape with dark green needles and aromatic resin blisters on its bark. It produces upright cones that disintegrate to release seeds.

This tree is the main type of tree grown for use as Christmas trees!

Ecological Role

Also a “climax species”, this tree provides habitat for birds like the Black-capped Chickadee and mammals such as the Red Squirrel. Its needles are a food source for the larvae of certain moth species.

Balsam Fir provides winter cover for insects, birds, and deer.

Pests and Disease

Needle blight, root rot, and rust are some of the main troublemakers for Balsam Fir. Too much watering can be the cause for different types of root rots, so that’s something to keep in mind!

As far as pests go, spruce budworm, bark beetles, and aphids are some to watch out for.

Tamarack (Larix laricina)

Also known as Alaska larch , American larch , eastern larch , hackmatack.

Tamarack or Western Larch in fall color.
Growing Requirements
  • Moisture: Prefers wet, acidic soils, commonly found in bogs and swamps. (But we have a larch which is doing great, besides having deer damage, and it’s located in a pretty dry area of our yard).
  • Sun/Shade: Full sun.
  • Height and Width at Maturity: 10-20 meters tall and 4-6 meters wide.
  • Native Areas in Alberta: Boreal forest and wetlands across northern Alberta.
Unique Characteristics

Tamarack, or Eastern Larch, is a deciduous conifer, meaning it sheds its needles in the fall. Its needles turn a brilliant yellow before falling, and in the winter it does look a bit like a dead evergreen tree! But the bright green new growth is early in spring and it’s an absolute favorite tree of mine.

Ecological Role

The tree provides habitat for birds such as the Great Gray Owl and ospreys, which like to nest in dead trees.

Its seeds are loved by small birds such as pine siskins and crossbills, as well as multiple different small mammals. Interestingly, porcupines like to feed on the inner bark of tamarack!

Pests and Disease

Larch sawfly is the main pest insect that is not native and can kill a tree within several years.

Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica)

Also known as Red Ash, Swamp Ash, or Water Ash.

Growing Requirements
  • Moisture: very adaptable to both dry and moist conditions. Considered drought tolerant, so a great option for homeowners wanting to conserve water!
  • Sun/Shade: Full sun to partial shade.
  • Height and Width at Maturity: 12-20 meters tall and 6-8 meters wide.
  • Native Areas in Alberta: Southern and central Alberta, commonly found in river valleys and floodplains.
Unique Characteristics

Green Ash has glossy, green leaves that turn a lovely yellow in the fall. It produces clusters of winged seeds that are dispersed by the wind. This can be a bit messy.

It is one of the last trees to grow leaves in the spring and one of the first to drop them in the fall, something to keep in mind.

Ecological Role

This tree provides habitat for birds like the American Goldfinch. Its seeds are an important food source for small mammals and birds.

Pests and Disease

The emerald ash borer is an extremely damaging and invasive pest. There is very little that can be done about it, and our native trees do not seem to have any resistance to this pest. Around 99% of all ash trees will die within 6 years of beetle arrival in an area.

One of the main ways we can try to avoid spreading it further is by buying firewood where you burn it- ie. not taking firewood with you from place to place. Also, try to buy nursery stock locally instead of out-of-province trees.

Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa)

Also known as Blue Oak or Mossycup Oak.

I’ve added this one in here although it isn’t technically native to Alberta! The nearest native oak trees (bur oak being the ONLY oak tree native to any area in Canada) are located in the Saskatchewan prairie.

Growing Requirements
  • Moisture: Prefers well-drained soils; drought-tolerant once established.
  • Sun/Shade: Full sun.
  • Height and Width at Maturity: 15-25 meters tall and 10-15 meters wide.
  • Native Areas in Alberta: Not quite native in Alberta! Grows nearby in Saskatchewan, though, particularly in river valleys and prairie regions.
Unique Characteristics

A very large tree, Bur Oak has a broad, spreading crown and distinctive lobed leaves. It produces acorns with little bur-like bristles at the top (hence the names “Bur Oak” and “Mossycup Oak”) that are a valuable food source for wildlife. Its thick, corky bark makes it resistant to fire.

I especially appreciate the lovely leaf shape!

Fallen Autumn oak tree leaves.
Ecological Role

Bur Oak provides habitat for birds such as the Blue Jay, which also relies on its acorns for food. Many insects, including caterpillars, feed on its leaves, supporting a diverse ecosystem.

And we definitely need many more caterpillars to feed the declining bird populations; so just ask Doug Tallamy about planting oaks (this is why I’ve included it on the list).

Pests and Disease

Oak Gall Wasps may make a tree unsightly but will not usually cause it great harm. They can be removed by hand, or heavily infested limbs pruned.

Trembling Aspen (Populus tremuloides)

Also known as Quaking Aspen.

Growing Requirements
  • Moisture: Prefers moist, well-drained soils but can tolerate dry conditions.
  • Sun/Shade: Full sun to partial shade.
  • Height and Width at Maturity: 20-30 meters tall and 3-6 meters wide.
  • Native Areas: Throughout Alberta, especially in the boreal forest and foothills.
Unique Characteristics

Trembling Aspen is known for its shimmering leaves that tremble in the breeze, creating a soothing rustling sound. In the fall, its foliage turns a stunning golden yellow, lighting up the landscape.

This aspen tends to sucker and form thickets over time. I think this adds to the charm! But it’s something to be aware of for homeowners who want to plant one tree and have it stay that way.

Ecological Role

This tree provides crucial habitat and food for various species. Birds like the Ruffed Grouse rely on it. Beavers also use its wood for building dams.

Pests and Disease

Since there is a large bud gall mite problem on neighboring poplars, and aspens are susceptible (as you can see by the Latin name, aspen is related), we likely won’t be planting any of these on our property (sadly!).

Forest tent caterpillars are another common defoliating pest of trembling aspen, as are aspen leaf rollers and large aspen tortrix, among others.

Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera)

Also known as White Birch or Canoe Birch (so named because indigenous peoples used the bark to make “birchbark canoes”).

Growing Requirements
  • Moisture: Prefers moist, well-drained soils.
  • Sun/Shade: Full sun to partial shade.
  • Height and Width at Maturity: 15-25 meters tall and 6-8 meters wide.
  • Native Areas: Common in the boreal forest and mixedwood areas of Alberta.
Unique Characteristics

In the fall, Paper Birch leaves turn a brilliant yellow, and the tree’s unique white, peeling bark supplies wonderful winter interest even after the leaves have fallen.

The tree produces catkins that provide food for various wildlife.

Ecological Role

The seeds and bark, along with catkins, of Paper Birch are food sources for numerous different birds and multiple small mammals such as beavers, snowshoe hares, and porcupines. Moose and deer will browse Paper Birch as well.

Numerous birds nest in these trees, including swallows, woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches.

Pests and Disease

Stressed trees are the ones mainly affected by pests such as the Bronze Birch Borer and Birch Leaf Miner. Be sure to provide plenty of water and definitely do not weed whip or mow directly around the base of the tree, to avoid damaging the trunk. Damaged trunks attract pest insects.

Pincherry (Prunus pennsylvanica)

Also known as Bird Cherry, Red Cherry, and Fire Cherry).

Growing Requirements
  • Moisture: Prefers moist, well-drained soils. Will not tolerate standing water.
  • Sun/Shade: Full sun.
  • Height and Width at Maturity: 5-10 meters tall and 2-5 meters wide.
  • Native Areas: Southern and central Alberta, often found in disturbed areas and open woodlands.
Unique Characteristics

Pincherry produces gorgeous clusters of small, white flowers in the spring, followed by clusters of bright red cherries in the summer. Its leaves turn yellow in the fall, adding seasonal interest. Stunning tree year round!

Ecological Role

The cherries are a valuable food source for birds like the Cedar Waxwing and mammals such as the Black Bear. The flowers attract pollinators, including bees and butterflies.

Pests and Disease

Look out for black knot, cherry leaf spot, and eastern tent caterpillars.

Plains Cottonwood (Populus deltoides)

Also known as Western Cottonwood.

Growing Requirements
  • Moisture: Prefers moist, well-drained soils; often found near rivers and streams.
  • Sun/Shade: Full sun.
  • Height and Width at Maturity: 20-30 meters tall and 15-20 meters wide.
  • Native Areas: Southern Alberta, particularly in river valleys and floodplains.
  • Other: do not plant near underground wells or pipes due to far spreading roots.
Unique Characteristics

Plains Cottonwood has large, heart-shaped leaves that turn yellow in the fall. It produces cottony seeds that disperse in the wind, creating a picturesque but very annoying scene in the spring. Ha! I would not plant this near your home because it can be frustrating due to the large amount of cotton produced.

Also worthwhile to consider: seasonal allergies can be really aggravated by the amount of pollen produced by this tree.

Ecological Role

Plains Cottonwood provides habitat for birds like the Bald Eagle, which often nests in its tall branches. Its seeds and leaves are food sources for various insects and small mammals.

Pests and Disease

Various pests and disease can attack Plains Cottonwood. Extended periods of drought will stress the tree, which makes it more susceptible.

Balsam Poplar (Populus balsamifera)

Also known as Eastern Balsam Poplar.

Growing Requirements
  • Moisture: Prefers moist, rich soils.
  • Sun/Shade: Full sun to partial shade.
  • Height and Width at Maturity: 20-30 meters tall and 8-10 meters wide.
  • Native Areas: Throughout Alberta, especially in riparian zones and mixedwood forests.
Unique Characteristics

Balsam Poplar has fragrant, sticky buds in spring and large, heart-shaped leaves. Its yellow fall color is striking, and it produces cottony seeds that disperse in the wind.

I can’t fully recommend planting this species in your yard, because of the yellow “stickies” that ruin so many things, ie. your child’s clothing, outdoor furniture, the list goes on. As well, the cotton can be frustrating if you prefer a tidy yard look.

Balsam Poplar is often used as a windbreak in rural areas, as it is fast growing and doesn’t sucker as readily as other varieties. For this use, I recommend!

Ecological Role

This tree provides habitat for various bird species, including the Yellow Warbler.

Its leaves and bark are food sources for beavers and moose, and it supports numerous insect species. The sticky buds are also eaten by different birds and small mammals!

Apparently, bees sometimes harvest resin from these trees and use it to disinfect their hives.

Pests and Disease

Poplar leaf and shoot blight can occur on these trees. Also, see previous Cottonwood for other diseases that commonly affect poplars.

Narrowleaf Cottonwood (Populus augustifolia)

Also known as Willow-leaved Poplar.

Growing Requirements
  • Moisture: Prefers moist, well-drained soils but is quite flexible; commonly found along riverbanks and floodplains.
  • Sun/Shade: Full sun to part shade.
  • Height and Width at Maturity: 15-25 meters tall and 10-15 meters wide.
  • Native Areas: Southern Alberta, especially in river valleys.
Unique Characteristics

Narrowleaf Cottonwood has long, narrow leaves that can be mistaken for willow leaves. They turn golden yellow in the fall. The tree produces cottony seeds similar to other cottonwoods, aiding in natural propagation.

Ecological Role

This tree provides habitat for birds such as the Western Tanager. Its roots help stabilize riverbanks, preventing erosion.

Stands of these trees provide exceptionally good habitat for a variety of wildlife, including large game, small mammals, and many different songbird and raptor species.

Pests and Diseases

See other cottonwoods.

In Conclusion

Our family loves to go to the river valley, the mountains, and the foothills to explore. Every time, I am amazed at the diversity of trees and native plants that are found in each area!

Each tree species, from the towering White Spruce to the delicate Pincherry, plays a crucial role in our ecosystem. They provide habitat and food for a wide variety of birds, insects, and mammals, ensuring the health and balance of our natural environment.

The pests and diseases should not scare you off. Every type of tree has some risk of damage or death due to something or another… the best thing you can do is to plant a variety of trees and take care of them well. Planting native wildflower gardens nearby is also a good idea- they can attract beneficial insects such as lacewings and ladybugs, and many types of bird species that will all eat pest insects.

Planting and nurturing these native trees in our gardens and landscapes not only enhances the beauty of our surroundings but also supports local wildlife and contributes to the preservation of Alberta’s rich biodiversity. Whether you’re looking to add spectacular fall color, fragrant spring blossoms, or a sturdy shelterbelt to your property, there’s a native tree that fits the bill.

Happy Gardening!