You are hiking along a gorgeous canyon in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Forest. You come across a small creek. Surrounding that creek, you see a stand of hundreds of Aspen Trees slowly rustling in the wind. You wonder, are these trees part of something bigger?
Well, you’d be right to think that. In fact, Aspen trees are considered one of the largest organisms on the planet with an resilient life force that resides underground in the form of an extensive root system. These roots can remain dormant or inactive for many years until the right conditions, such as sufficient sunlight, allow for a stand of trees to grow above ground. A stand of trees is also called a “clone” because each individual tree is genetically identical, creating one large organism. Fungi also operate this way. Fascinatingly, if a single Aspen clone was removed from the stand, its tough root system would barely be affected because it reproduces so rapidly!
In deciduous forests, Aspen trees can quickly colonize recently burned or bare areas. Their thin, white outer bark protects a green photosynthetic layer underneath which helps the trees to create sugars and thrive in sub-optimal conditions, often times when other deciduous trees stay dormant. This sugary layer can then provide dire nutrients for wildlife such as deer or elk during hard winters or when food is scarce.
The oldest and heaviest known Aspen stand can be found in Utah's Fishlake National Forest. It is rumored to be over 80,000 years old and weigh nearly 6,600 tons.
What an awesome tree!
This blog is managed by the staff and volunteers of Galena Creek Visitor Center. We write about parts of the natural world that we find fascinating and want to teach others about, as well as keeping you updated on the Visitor Center and park. If you want to learn more, please sign up for our monthly newsletter, where we share upcoming events, updates on the ecology of the park, and highlights from each month.