Frost hardiness vs. growth performance in trembling aspen: an experimental test of assisted migration


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  1. According to the range limit hypothesis, the distribution of many temperate species is restricted by a trade-off between their capacity to survive winter extremes in the north (or high elevation) and their ability to compete with better-adapted species in the south (or low elevation range limits). This trade-off has important implications in forestry, particularly in the context of managed seed movement under climate change.
  2. In this study, we aim to quantify trade-offs among growth, frost hardiness and timing of leaf senescence and bud break in populations of trembling aspen, Populus tremuloides Michx., which were observed in a large reciprocal transplant experiment across five planting sites in western Canada, including additional provenances from Minnesota.
  3. After 10 years, we found pronounced increases in productivity as a result of long-distance transfers in a north-west direction. For example, provenances moved 1600 km north-west from Minnesota to central Alberta (a shift of 7° latitude to the north) produced almost twice the biomass of local sources. Similarly, provenances moved 800 km from central Alberta to north-east British Columbia (4° latitude north) also produced twice the biomass of local sources.
  4. We further found that increased growth was not associated with lower survival rates. Bud break in provenances transferred north-west generally occurred slightly later than in local sources, suggesting decreased risk of spring frost injury. Leaf abscission was later in provenances transferred in a north-west direction, but they appeared to be very frost hardy, well ahead of very rare early fall frost events.
  5. Synthesis and applications. This study demonstrated that assisted migration prescriptions have considerable potential to enhance forest productivity. In the case of aspen, even long-distance seed transfers in a north-west direction were successful. We conclude that benefits in productivity outweigh potential risks associated with northward transfer of aspen planting stock under both current and projected future climate conditions.