SciSun: Send in the Clones 2   Leave a comment

A story where the lead character is the same performer that was the focus of a previous story could be called a sequel. Or a continuation. Or, in what might be a more fitting description for this story, a clone; because our hero, the Populus tremuloides, or North American ‘Quaking’ Aspen, is a type of tree that can just as easily spread and grow by reproducing itself through clones as it can by dropping seeds. Which makes it more difficult to see the trees through the forest; when the entire forest could be one tree.

In some areas, the Aspen is considered a pest. Due to it’s easily sprouting ramets (sprouts that grow from roots); relative fire-resistance; ability to quickly recover from damage; and adaptability to grow in most any soil from rich to rocky (not the name of a new boxing movie); Aspen are often one of the few woody plants to establish an area, one plant growing into thousands and it’s been viewed as crowding out more ‘useful’ trees like pines, maples, and oaks. So, as the most widely distributed tree in North America, the Aspen is often taken for granted and is one of the first trees to be cut down for paper or pulp wood; in fact a significant agricultural crop in many northern states and Canada.

But a stand of Aspen – the Aspen grove – creates a unique ecosystem that could be responsible for the health of an entire forest of all tree, undergrowth, and animal sepcies that rely on this environment. Some scientists believe a healthy Aspen stand is only second in ecological importance to riparian zones – the complex, rich areas bordering streams, rivers and waterways that support entire regions. Unlike evergreen or hardwood deciduous forests, Aspen stands cover and protect shrubs, herbs, wildflowers, and even provide shade for growing pine, spruce, and other trees. The Aspen canopy, often an island within a deeper, darker forest of evergreen and broadleaf trees, allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor allowing multiple species that require specific levels of light and moisture to thrive and attracting the animals that seek out such environments for food and homes. In some areas an Aspen grove could be the most productive environment in the region, supporting hundreds of species from berries to bears. And the more berries there are, the more the bears like the forest.

Aspen are some of the first plants to return to even the most harsh environments.  Like this field of recently-cooled lava.

Aspen are some of the first plants to return to even the most harsh environments. Like this field of recently-cooled lava.

In current research it’s found that Aspens are heroes in the science of phytoremediation: The natural actions of plants as they move water and nutrients from their roots to the surface, working to clear soil and water of contaminants and impurities. Populus species – Aspens as well as their cousins cottonwood (P. deltoides; P. spp.) and poplar – possess extremely strong and efficient pumping actions of their root systems that can remove organic pollutants – both natural and man-made – from groundwater and fouled run-off from landfills and construction sites, possibly one day serving as natural filters resulting in clean water, improved environmental health, and millions of dollars saved and invested in new business.

But the under-appreciated Aspen suffers for it’s work, with individual sprouts, matured into grown trees, living only about 100 years, one of the shortest lived of all trees. Of course the entire clonal colony can live thousands of years with some colonies dating back to the time of Mammoths and Cavebears. Mans current attention to wildfire prevention, while overall a beneficial program (‘they mean well!’), is probably detrimental to the health of Aspen which depend upon natural, fast-moving and relatively small wildfires to clear the forest floor of evergreen and hardwood saplings, and provide a more healthy, to the Aspen, environment. In addition the removal of the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) from virtually the entire continental United States, with limited populations in the north and west, means there are more elk and deer eating Aspen shoots and saplings, which puts further pressure on the trees and allows insect and bacterial pests to cause further damage. Throughout the West, Aspen stands are declining and some scientists and field researchers state that the trees will continue to suffer under current practices and conditions.

And we haven’t even mentioned the historical value of the Aspen; nor it’s unique bark and leaves; or even the magnificent Autumn colors. Actually, there’s not too much that can be said for the Aspen, a misunderstood tree that has a lot to be proud of. Sometimes what can seem familiar and common at first, deserves a second, or third, look.


Michonne Says: Are those ask-pin trees like brightwind trees? Brightwind trees are beautiful because when the wind comes the leaves jump and scamper and shine bright like the sun. But sometimes deers and elks and flat-tails eat the leaves so I don’t think they care much about how it looks.

Posted May 17, 2015 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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