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The Aspen

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If there ever was a tree that was rightly named, it’s the aspen, Populus tremuloides. The trembling aspen, commonly known as the quaking aspen — the most widely distributed tree in North America — refers to its autumnal symphony, a soft rustling sound of heart-shaped leaves tapping against one another in a breeze. The quaking is a result of the flattened leaf stem, the wind easily able to turn its edges. The fluttering song, and leaves that change in color from shamrock-green to bright yellow-gold to red-orange, pronounce a fall to be proud of. Without the aspen, how would we Westerners compete with those Easterners? Drive to Mono Lake over Conway Summit, take a hike or stroll to Marlette Lake, or simply walk in neighborhoods around Tahoe, and we are treated to our own dazzling, deciduous fireworks.       

Aspens are often seen in large groves; these extensions occur because of their cloning ability. While aspens have tiny brown seeds in catkins (narrow, cylindrical flower clusters that look like fuzzy caterpillars), they more often clone themselves. Long roots stretch underground as far as 100 feet, and then rise to the surface to become copies of the parent tree. Each new trunk can send out its own line of underground roots, with new shoots developing into trees that can reach 100 feet high. Because of this extensive root system, in 1992 the aspen surpassed other living organisms to become the world’s most massive organism. Although aspens only live 80 to 100 years, the root systems can survive thousands of years, sending out fresh shoots and beginning the cycle again.

Cloning also explains simultaneous color bursts. The authors of the book “Sierra Nevada Natural History” wrote, “Members of a clone all have a similar appearance and turn colors in the fall at the same time, readily separating them from their neighboring clone clusters.” Aspen roots might be pesky to some homeowners as small groups of root-sprouts show up in the middle of their lawns or their impeccably designed landscapes, but in the wild, snaking lines of aspens climbing up slot canyons are a beautiful sight to see.     

Aspen bark — smooth, chalk-white, with brown to black oval, eye-shaped knots — is famous for its artwork. Shannon Sisco, library technician at the University of Nevada, Reno, Basque Library, says arborglyph (also called dendroglyph and silvaglyph), or tree writing, is really just graffiti. After the gold rush in the early 20th century, young Basque men came to America to herd sheep through the countryside and mountains of California, Nevada, and Idaho. The Basque were joined by Peruvian Indians in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Tree carvings began as mere entertainment. “The white aspen bark presented the perfect palette to carve images, poems, names, and dates,” Sisco says. “The Basque call it lertxun, which means ‘aspen marking.’” After an image is carved, Sisco explains, the tree heals by scarring, which raises the bark and makes the image stand out. As the tree grows outward, so do the drawings.

Another mark widely seen on aspens stems from the handiwork of beavers. Gnawing marks, which look like an axe has struck the bark time and time again, circle aspen trunks as beavers prepare to fell the trees to create dams. Because aspens are at home in meadows and along streams (but also in gravel slopes and bases of lava jumbles), their location suits dam building perfectly. The aspen also provides the beaver its favorite food — aspen leaves and bark. Early trappers took note of this close relationship and set traps near aspen groves that lined creeks to capture the adept swimmer.

In October, we are treated to nature decorating itself in Halloween garb. The aspen’s yellow and orange leaves, shaking about in the autumn winds, provide a soft, rustling background song for trick-or-treaters running in the night. Quiver, quiver. Quake, quake. The aspens are spooking us again.

~ Do you have a question about our region’s natural world? Email Comment on this column below.

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February 14, 2019