Quaking Aspen

March 5, 2018


Over the last year I've developed a new found respect for Quaking Aspens (in the local vernacular, "Popple", which I suppose is an adjustment of another common name, "Poplar"). We have a few patches of them on the farm and I see them scattered here and there in little copses as I drive around upstate NY. Both the common name and latin name (Populus tremuloides) point to the trees' characteristic feature - the leaves that shake and shimmy in even the lightest breeze. In the fall they turn a brilliant yellow that contrasts beautifully with the light gray of the bark.

Aspens are widespread across the entire northern hemisphere. In fact, as one travels toward the pole they comprise an ever greater percentage of the forest canopy. Aspens are close cousins to willows, both of which are very fast growing, short lived* (by tree standards) plants. It's far from a hard and fast rule, but many of the tree colonizers of bare ground or old fields (black locust, poplar, black cherry, paper birch)  tend toward shorter lifespans than trees that are shade tolerant and move in incrementally as undergrowth below an established canopy - think sugar maple, beech, hemlock. Legumes garner a lot of positive press for their synergistic relationship with Rhizobia bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen and thereby enrich soil with the most commonly limited nutrient (nitrogen). But other plants in unrelated families appear also to have developed similar abilities, including Aspens. This explains how I have observed Aspens in the bloom of health growing from gravel pits where the "soil" is little more than sand and stone.

Another interesting feature that endears Aspens to me is their ability to sucker from their roots. They are truly lovers of disturbance - over time, slow growing and shade tolerant species like maples and hemlocks will over top them and dominate a forest. But when fire, logging, ice storms, or other disruption opens up the canopy aspens will send up thickets of suckers from their roots. Across large swaths of boreal forest (northern forests that stretch around the entire northern hemisphere) fires are a common occurrence. When the competition gets burned Aspens can seize the advantage by sending up prolific, fast growing suckers. Where I've selectively felled a few trunks for pig bedding (woodchips) and lumber for shelves the first year growth from root suckers can top 8 ft. This regenerative trait can reach truly Titantic proportions. The largest organism known on earth is the so called, "Pando" Aspen. It's a clonal Quaking Aspen grove that covers more than 100 acres in Colorado. Seriously, that is so gigantic. That's equivalent to half my farm covered by a single "plant". 

"Popple" doesn't get a lot of respect from loggers around here because their perspective on the relative merits of various trees is formed first and foremost by the $ value at the sawmill. In the hierarchy of trees that grow in upstate NY Black Walnut is at the pinnacle followed by Black Cherry and Sugar Maple. In the middle fall species like Red Maple and White Ash. At the bottom come the softwoods like Hemlock, pines, and spruces of all types. Aspen gets grouped in with the needle bearers for the most part, and in many cases this makes sense - its wood is light, relatively soft, and good for blending into fiber mixes for making paper. Cordwood for paper is worth only a fraction of what good sawlogs bring from a mill that cuts lumber. Despite it's low lumber value I've enjoyed working with it. It does not splinter much.  We used it to build shelves in our big freezer and it proved pretty stable; it's much less prone to cracking than the hemlock we also built in. And I helped Rowan build a step stool for the bathroom out of Aspen. I think it turned out well.


*"Short-lived" applies to individual stems, not necessarily the whole plant/root system. With disturbance (fire, logging, browsing, etc) timed appropriately the root systems can persist for millennia. 

Photo Credits - Edmund Brown

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