“If there were a Guinness Book of World Records for trees, the quaking aspen would be in it – several times. First, it has the widest natural range of any tree in North America, spanning 47 degrees of latitude (equal to half the distance from the equator to the North Pole), 110 degrees of longitude (nine time zones) and elevations from sea level to timberline. It is also the largest living organism, growing in clones that reproduce primarily by sending up sprouts from their roots. And as far as the oldest … a clone in Minnesota has been estimated to be 8,000 years old! “- Arbor Day Foundation
The Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) is without a doubt a very unique species of tree. Aspens grow in a variety of conditions, and reproduce through both seed and sprout. These trees enjoy full sun, and grow at a very fast rate of 24” per year. They are known by their ability to reproduce most successfully by producing clones that sprout from the root system. In a stand of clones, all of the trees will share identical characteristics, and share a root structure. Clones develop when either an Aspen tree has died, or sunlight becomes available through the canopy by other means. When light becomes available, the root system receives chemical signals that spur sprout growth. This reproduction method has earned the Aspen the title of largest living organism, as entire Aspen stands can share one root system. One example of this exists in Utah, where one clone stand has 47,000 stems that all share the same system of roots.
The Quaking Aspen gets its name from a whispering quaking sound they produce in the spring, summer, and fall. Its rounded leaves and stem shape are the perfect design for catching and fluttering in the wind. Even a slight breeze creates a fluttering effect. Spend an afternoon lying in an Aspen grove, and you will understand exactly why this tree earned its name.
Although their bright, smooth bark may make it tempting, it is illegal to carve on Aspen trees that are located in the national forests and grasslands. However, if you are a history buff you can enjoy the arborglyphs created by the Basque who, like many others, sought out a new life in the American West in the mid 1800’s. Basque sheepherders were no strangers to alone time, and carved scenes into Aspen groves to pass the time while watching the herd. These simple depictions, as well as names, dates, and phrases in the Basque language are a small picture into the history of the American West. Most are dated within a 100 year range, as most individual Aspens do not last much longer than that (Although, a stand of Aspen clones can live for hundreds, and even thousands of years).
(Below: Arborglyphs created by the Basque. Click the images for a closer look!)
Quaking Aspens have been considered to be in a slow, steady decline. Some attribute the decline to the decrease in forest fires, as the Aspen does not readily burn and benefits from forest fires’ elimination of conifers. Others blame heavy feeding of deer, elk, and sheep. Whether or not an unnatural decline in the aspen population has been occurring is a long lasting debate of forest managers (this is not including instances of SAD, or “Sudden Aspen Decline”, noted in Colorado and Arizona). If you ever find yourself visiting an Aspen stand you can determine yourself if it is healthy by observing its “layers”. A healthy Aspen grove should have sprouts, saplings, and mature trees. If the grove has only mature trees, and you can see through clearly to the other side, then the grove is not healthy and will likely die off.