Tree Profile: Aspen
Aspens are the most widespread tree in North America. From the Midwest, across Canada, north into Alaska and across the West through to Arizona and New Mexico, quaking aspens dot the edge of conifer forests in clusters or “clones.”
One aspen tree is actually only a small part of a larger organism.
A stand — or group of aspen trees — is considered a singular organism with the main life force underground in the extensive root system. In a single stand, each tree is a genetic replicate of the other, hence the name a “clone” of aspens used to describe a stand.
Before a single aspen trunk appears above the surface, the root system may lie dormant for many years until the conditions are just right, including sufficient sunlight.
Even if the trees of a stand are wiped out, it is very difficult to permanently extinguish an aspen’s root system due to the rapid rate in which it reproduces.
Aspens grow all the time — even in winter.
Beneath the thin, white outer bark layer is a thin green photosynthetic layer that allows the tree to create sugars and grow when other deciduous trees would otherwise be dormant.
During hard winters, the green, sugary layer provides necessary nutrients for deer and elk. Throughout the year, young aspens provide food for a variety of animals including moose, black bear, beaver, porcupine, ruffed grouse, and rodents.
Older than the massive Sequoias or the biblical Bristlecone Pines, the oldest known aspen clone has lived more than 80,000 years on Utah’s Fishlake National Forest.
Not only is the clone the oldest living organism, weighing in at an estimated 6,600 tons, it is also the heaviest.
Pros & Cons
Aspens are generally small or medium trees, so they won't overwhelm your yard.
Before adding to your yard, consider that the role of aspens in nature is as a “succession” tree. Its job in the wild is to spread quickly in eroded or burned out areas, providing cover for seedlings of forest trees like pine, fir, and spruce.
Planting an aspen tree can therefore quickly lead to many aspen trees in your yard as they are hardy and grow quickly. That means that you can “furnish” a new backyard in just a few seasons if you plant aspens.
When planting aspen, pick nursery-grown specimens rather than those taken from the wild. Nursery grown trees require less care and may avoid some of the disease issues the tree experiences in cultivation.
Plant the trees in moist, well-drained soil. The soil should be slightly acidic for the tree to thrive.
Plant aspens on northern or eastern slopes, or northern or eastern sides of your house, rather than sunnier areas. They cannot tolerate drought or hot, dry soil.