When I first moved West in the 1970s I fell in love with aspen trees because of what they represented to me in my early 20s – wildness and spontaneity, new adventures, and breaking away from entrenched paths.
But beyond all that youthful anthropomorphizing, aspens can completely stand on their own. It’s just plain hard to dislike them! Apparently, many species feel the same. Aspen groves support almost 200 species!
Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) is the widest ranging tree – north, south, east, and west – in North and South America. It is in the Willow Family along with cottonwoods, poplars, and of course, willows. Aspens can reproduce by seed but here in the West, they mostly reproduce by root shoots, which offers a more reliable beginning in our drier climate.
Entire groves are actually the same being – meaning each individual tree in a grove has the same DNA as its neighboring trees. They are clones. You can distinguish where one grove ends and another begins in the fall because each grove will display it’s own unique fall color. The largest living being on the planet is an aspen grove in Utah. It covers 106 acres and weighs in at 6600 tons. Scientists have estimated its age at 80,000 years.
Aspens survive all but super intense fires. Though the tree above ground will die, the roots quickly sprout new shoots. Root-sprouted aspens have so much more energy to draw from than seed-sprouted aspens, so they grow faster and get re-established much sooner. This is good for soil stability and soil temperatures as well as for all the critters that depend upon aspen.
An aspen leaf trembles because its leaf stalk is flat. In stiff winds this design enables clusters of leaves to lean against each other, reducing drag on and damage to branches. That scientific explanation is great but I am still inclined to romanticize the quaking of aspens. There’s something about that fluttering that lightens a person’s mood and makes everything seem possible. Perhaps they are modeling how to let things slide off our backs.