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Aspen Trees in the Breeze

by Brigitte Mars

As we move into the season of glorious golden aspen trees, we might wonder about the history, lore and uses of this plant, beautiful enough to cause one to take a long drive into the Colorado mountains to be amazed.

Populus tremuloides, the Latin name for Aspen, is a member of the Salicaceae (Willow) Family, which includes cottonwood and poplar trees.  The species name tremuloides means trembling, for its leaves flutter in the slightest breeze. It also goes by the name White Poplar and Quaking Aspen.

Aspen has long been used for food and medicine. The inner bark can be eaten as an emergency food and is high in protein. (However, never girdle or cut all the way around a tree, as the sap will be unable to rise and the plant can die.) The buds have long been made into cough syrup. Aspen contains salicin and populin, which have properties similar to aspirin in reducing fever, pain and inflammation. Native and  pioneer peoples used Aspen bark tea medicinally in place of quinine.

Aspen is also one of the famous Bach flower remedies, where two drops of the flower essence are taken to calm fears and anxiety of an unknown origin.

Aspen feeds at least 500 animal species. Examples include: grouse who eat the winter buds and moose who eat the foliage. Beavers use the branches to build dams.

The wood of Quaking Aspen is used to make particleboard. The fibers of the bark can be used to make paper. The wood does not splinter easily, so it is used to make toys and popsicle sticks.

Aspen branches are soaked in a stream to become flexible, then fashioned into sweat lodges. Aspen is used to decorate lawns and provide shade.

Quaking Aspen is native to North America. Aspens grow from sea level to timberline. They grow well in mountainous regions where weather is cooler and water somewhat more abundant and thrive in loose ground and rocky soil. The trees produce a nitrogen and calcium abundant litter, which when decayed enables new vegetation to grow.

One mother Aspen plant has resulting plants that are exact clones of her, sharing identical characteristics and a single root structure. One clonal colony from a single male Aspen is named Pando, found in Utah and considered the heaviest and oldest living organism weighing about six million kilograms and thought by some to be about 80,000 years old. Aspens do produce seeds, but trees seldom grow from them. Even when pollinated, the small seeds (about three million per pound) are only viable a short time and lack a food storage capacity or protective coating.

Aspen is often the first tree to grow back after a forest fire. Even though the aboveground portion of the trees may die in a wildfire, the roots, which are often protected from extreme temperatures by the soil, will sprout new trees soon after a blaze. Aspens are medium to large sized trees with male and female flowers occurring on separate trees in drooping catkins before leaves appear in spring. The deciduous leaves are short, round, pointy, shiny and finely toothed.  They are dark green with white veins and attach alternately to the twigs. In autumn, the leaves turn a golden color resembling gold coins, though sometimes red coloration is seen. The bark of the Quaking Aspen has a distinctive white color. Aspen grows rapidly and can reach 50 to 100 feet.

Is there anything you would like to share about this tree that gets our attention every fall in Colorado?


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