Quaking Aspen - Populus tremuloides

quaking aspen botany with brit

     Quaking aspen is the most widely distributed tree in North America with a range that extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, reaching north into the boreal forests of Canada and occurring in isolated populations in Mexico. This tree has an unusual way of reproducing. The tiny seeds enveloped in cotton don't carry stored food and are viable for only a week or two - instead of relying on seeds for reproduction, aspens are capable of regenerating through sprouts from a communal root system that can survive for hundreds or sometimes thousands of years. These groves of genetically identical aspen are called clones, and they can be most clearly observed in fall and spring when the trees comprising the clone all turn yellow together or all leaf out simultaneously. Another genetically determined factor about a clone is its sex: the trees making up a clone either have only male or only female flowers.

Aspen has another rare attribute in the plant world - it can be identified by sound. The round 2 inch leaves are attached to the twig by a flattened petiole (leaf stem) that allows them to twist and flutter against each other in the breeze. The green leaves have a silver underside that shimmers in the wind. Aspens have a gorgeously smooth white bark punctuated with black markings, and the wood is soft and lightweight, not prone to producing splinters (which makes it good for building benches and playgrounds). The slender limbs stand straight out from the trunk, forming the narrow domed crown of the canopy.

Beavers find the bark to be rather tasty and will log aspen, gnawing it up into chunks and storing it underwater near their den entrance as a winter meal. Moose, deer, elk, and snowshoe hares also eat its twigs, bark, and foliage, and migratory songbirds nest in its branches.

Native Americans and early pioneers used aspen medicinally for relief from colds, infections, and pains - like other members of the willow family it contains salicin, the substance from which aspirin is derived. Aspens also contain the alkaloid quinine which is useful in treating malaria, and prior to the 1880s this disease was much more prevalent in North America. 

To thrive, aspen needs abundant sunlight, and our modern habit of fire suppression has allowed conifer forests to shade out the aspen groves. Aspens have a low flammability level which creates a natural firebreak, making them desirable in the vicinity of homes. But you don't want them too close because the aggressive root systems will poke holes in your septic system. Eww.