I was visiting a landowner (let’s call him Dave) when I saw a neat little area of 5-year-old quaking aspen. I’d been looking for examples of young forest (a valuable and increasingly scarce wildlife habitat), and this was a great spot for a photo.
When I lowered my camera, Dave was looking at me with a furrowed brow. “You’re taking pictures of popple?” he asked, like I must be crazy. I told Dave about my looking for young forest examples, and we moved on.
A short time later, though, I thought more about this landowner’s disdain for “popple.” It makes sense. Quaking aspen’s leaves quiver in the tiniest breeze. Its wood is weak and quick to rot. It doesn’t even make great firewood.
Despite all that, quaking aspen is actually a superhero. Like any superhero, it has a mild-mannered alter ego that makes people discount it. Yet behind that trembling exterior, the unassuming popple has amazing powers.
Quaking aspen has the widest distribution of any native North American tree. You can find it in Alaska; you can find it in Mexico. You can find it in Maine; you can find it in California.
Quaking aspen has the widest range of any native tree in North America. Map credit: US Geological Survey
Unlike a lot of other trees that lose their leaves, aspens are fast growers. They put on a lot of wood quickly, and they bounce back well after harvesting (courtesy of its next superpower). That fast growth makes aspen less suitable for lumber but popular with paper companies.
Creates Copies of Itself
Quaking aspen is one of the few trees that produces “root suckers,” new trees that sprout from the roots of the parent tree. These sprouts are triggered by damage to the parent tree (say, by cutting it). When one tree falls, dozens more can spring up in its place.
On its mild-mannered surface, aspen is a short-lived tree. 50 to 60 years is typical, though a few can last up to 200. But under the surface, aspen trees can be immortal. That’s because all those copies share a root system. In effect, they’re all the same plant. When one stem “dies,” the roots just send up more.
That immortality has earned one quaking aspen the title “oldest tree on Earth.” Pando is a quaking aspen clonal colony in Fishlake National Forest in Utah. It covers more than a hundred acres and weighs in at more than 13 million pounds. Pando’s root system is estimated at 80,000 years old, making it not only the oldest tree but one of the oldest living things on Earth.
Pando is the oldest tree on Earth at an estimated 80,000 years. It’s a quaking aspen colony made up of a single plant with a shared root system. Photo credit: US Forest Service
So show a little respect. Yeah, it’s popple. But give it a cape, and it’s Supertree.