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Quaking Aspen

January 18, 2011

Location: Red Lodge, Montana
A few days ago, while cross country skiing in Red Lodge, Montana, I glided past a grove of Quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides). Aspens are among my favorite deciduous trees in the northern climes. I find the black scars across their smooth gray trunks to be almost artistic in their seemingly random patterns. The tree is appropriately named. When the wind blows through its flat, glossy, heart-shaped leaves, it makes a trembling sound, hence its scientific name. And in the fall, they turn the Rocky Mountain hillsides a warm amber.
Interestingly, the trees on a hillside of aspens are likely clones of each other. Though Quaking aspens sometimes produce seeds, they propagate primarily by their roots, which send out shoots. In other words, all of the trees in a grove can be literally one organism. It is this trait that allows aspens to be one of the first trees to regrow after forest fire as their roots are not susceptible to the extreme heat. In fact, forest fires allow aspens to compete with conifers which tend to take over aspen habitat if there is no disturbance over a period of time.
The rapid disappearance of Quaking aspens in the last decade, called Sudden Aspen Decline, is a real concern. The reason is still unclear, but many scientists believe that Sudden Aspen Decline may not be due to a disease or a bug, but rather to overly efficient containment of wildfires.
Skiing farther, we paused at the next clump of aspens. My sweetheart took off his glove and rubbed the trunk of a tree, then rubbed the powdery substance from the trunk onto his face. “It’s nature’s sunscreen,” he said.
“I wonder what the SPF rating is,” I replied. I think I’ll stick with Coppertone, but my love of aspens remains undeterred.

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