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Everything A Man Should Know About The Quaking Aspen

Welcome ladies! Oh, and you too men. Alas, you’ve rabbit-holed yourself into another loquacious Lee Lockman tale – clearly a slow day in the ol’ factory of life if we are googling quaking aspen, don’t worry I’m not here to pass judgement. Don’t you dare have pity for yourself, because Uncle Lee is here to edutain the masses. Today’s info-session is on the largest living organism the quaking aspen. 

The quaking aspen goes by many pseudonyms, it’s also known as the trembling aspen, golden aspen, and if you want to get patriotic about it: The American Aspen. 

So, if you’re here to continue that free-fall down that rabbit hole, enjoy a few laughs and fill that beautiful mind of yours with some quakingly good facts (see what I did there), then scroll on down my dear friend, scroll on down. 

It’s a Tree How Sweet Can It Be? 

Pretty – eye-muffs – fucking sweet actually, thanks for asking. Let Lee Lockman here sprinkle some fast facts onto your mind and let them germinate. 

Let’s start off with this, the quaking aspen is a tree first, and a campground second – yeah, I’m talking to you California. Let me reiterate this point to you my darlings, this is an article on a trembling tree. If you are / were looking to stay at the lovely Quaking Aspen campground in the Sequoia National Forest click this. Although, let me save you some finger dips and let you know the campground is closed until May 28th 2021.

Pacific Northwest versus Everywhere Else

While we’re at it let me draw some lines in the proverbial sand. People from the PNW are different from our neighbours to the south. We don’t tan, we rust. Umbrellas = useless, just buy a jacket. Coffee and craft-beer > anything. We’re anti-social extroverts. Lastly, you’ll probably see someone playing a trombone while riding a unicycle, and we won’t flinch twice. 

Sorry folks, sometimes I get lost in an IPA-induced tangent, but I digress…

Fast Facts About The Quaking Aspen Tree

As you know, if you want to impress anyone and everyone you have to throw a little Latin flair, and some “hashtag science”, their way to assert your intellectual dominance. Populus tremuloides is the scientific/Latin name for the quaking aspen; and get this, it’s the most widely distributed tree in North America. Unsurprisingly, it grows best where I, Lee Lockman, reside: The Pacific Northwest (this “fact” is of course based in my completely unbiased opinion…).

Ok, ok, you’re probably saying Lee “enough of the scientific jibber jabber for a second, please. We want to know why it’s actually called a quaking aspen.” Simple. It’s because the slightest breeze will cause the leaves to tremble, or as you probably guessed it, quake. 

In fact, it has been said that the Onondaga Peoples called the quaking aspen “nut-kie-e”, which means “noisy leaf”. How truly apropos! 

Oh, does Uncle Lee have a story for you about this noisy leaf, but first let me sow some more seeds of insight for you.

Pando

Now, as I alluded to earlier the quaking aspen is the largest living organism. Spread across 107 acres of Utah’s Fishlake National Forest is approximately 47,000 genetically identical quaking aspen trees, which are all tethered to a single root system. And, of course if you’re the biggest in something then we as humans will give you a name, and the name we have given this mammoth of an organism is Pando. No, it isn’t derived from giant pandas, but rather Pando is Latin for “I spread”, and oh has it spread for at least 80,000 years. When I informed creepy Greg from accounting about the Latin derivative of Pando, he of course touted some creepy remark about how he Pando’d some “foxy lady” off of “Plenty of Fish” around the office… ugh seriously how can’t we get rid of this walking human resource violation…

Anyways, Pando weighs just shy of the amount of granola we consume here in the Pacific Northwest on a daily basis weighing in at a whopping 13 million pounds. This makes Pando – a quaking aspen – the largest living organism by mass on earth.

Pando became Pando because of the way quaking aspens reproduce – we’ll go a little deeper on this in a bit. While trembling aspens have the ability to reproduce by disseminating seeds more often than not, they send up sprouts from their roots and form what is essentially a clone. Root sprouting is the terminology we’re looking for here, and it is the most common and successful form of the trees reproduction cycle. That’s how over 47,000 trees are identical in their DNA and how Pando became a forest of the same tree. 

Now, close your educated eyes for a moment and picture the quivering and shaking of a forest filled with quaking aspen. The symphony of shivering leaves pulsing through your ear holes, what do you feel? Yeah, me too, these trees are terribly frightened. Just riddled with fear!

Why are Quaking Aspen Trees So Scared?

I am a man of my word, and told you all that I will be enlightening you with a Lee Lockman fable, so gather round and let Uncle Lee bounce you on his knee for storytime.

So, as any good solid man should, I escaped my tiny desk for a day out by the cabin where the stench of man pierces every living creatures’ nostrils. Fall was in full effect, the trees behind my cabin were overlapping with yellows and reds. Each leaf aware of it’s impending death. You know the perfect day to dabble in a little micro-dosing of psilocybin – I mean everyday seems like a good day, but you know what I mean. I chomped down on the fungi, grabbed my growler filled with IPA and headed into the trees.

There wasn’t a breeze, the air fresh, but stagnant. I trudged forward until I found a tree that was good enough to pop a squat by. Its bark was as white as an angel’s garments, shooting up from the ground to what seemed like the heavens, ornamented with electric yellow leaves. Yes, indeed it was a quaking aspen.

Out of nowhere a breeze came and struck me and the surrounding forest. At that exact moment your Unckie Lee realized he maaaay of have ingested a bit more than a micro-dose…

The leaves began to tremble, it was truly a cacophony of fear bellowing from the trees. As a man of the forest, I laid back and listened to the leaves. They had a message for ol’ Lee, “we’re dying… Please save us. Please, Mr. Lockman (trust me I also was taken aback by the decorum they had) can you write an engaging article about how important we are to the ecosystem.”

First pouring a little out for the quaking aspen, I took a swig out of my growler. I softly placed my hand on the tree’s white porcelain bark to console every quaking aspen in unity. I gave them my word to do my best, and spent the rest of the days light in the forest bathing in the symphony of quaking aspens.

At this point you’re probably thinking Lee is losing his mind, he has truly become untethered to reality? The quaking aspen aren’t actually trembling because they’re dying. Well boys and girls actually they sort of are. 

Although, physically/biologically speaking, the quaking from the trees occurs due to their flexible flattened petioles, they are in fact dying at a very accelerated rate.

Quaking Health Problems

There are signs of decline in the trembling aspen populations in the states of Utah, Arizona, and Colorado. The deaths of these terrified aspen are most apparent at lower elevations where drought and the rise of temperatures are killing the older aspen. Trust me, I’m no longer tripping, quaking aspens are in a battle for their lives against the same leading cause of death in humans, heat stroke and heart attacks.  

Now, I don’t want to get too science-y with you, but I’m going to anyway… The reason for the aspen heart attacks is because the hot dry conditions make the taller aspens pull water up from the earth at a stronger rater, which causes bubbles that block the access of water and nutrients to the tree. Ok, maybe that was as science-y as I thought…

Although heart attacks cause the older and taller trees to succumb to death; the younger aspens are not excluded from the clutches of death, however it’s for different reasons. Younger aspens are primarily facing their mortality due the over-browsing by deer, elk and other grazing livestock. The fear here is due to the central root system (remember root sprouting) not properly photosynthesizing younger trees and losing its ability to sustain a forest of clones. 

A healthy quaking aspen ecosystem is critical for the habitat for at least 190 of my woodland friends! 55 species of mammals and 135 species of birds. One study found 95% of 1692 cavity nests were in quaking aspen branches. Making the aspen an extremely vital nesting tree for the birds.

So, now that I’ve upheld my pledge to the trees about informing you about their death and explaining why they’re dying, we can move on to what makes these fear ridden trees peculiar…

Can We Really Trust A Tree Whose Wood Doesn’t Burn?

Lets see what other shady shit this tree is hiding?

Can it be Used For Firewood?

Let’s say no. Yeah, I guess, if you want to get technical about it. And, if you really want to be technical about it! Aspen is technically a hardwood, but it’s such a low-density hardwood that has the possibility of being softer than many softwoods making it not a great wood for fires.

Lets face it, trembling aspen are so encapsulated in their terror tremors that even after they have been uprooted and hacked into bits, they are still afraid of death by fire! Just kidding, but seriously quaking aspen only produces about half the amount of heat a strong; man’s, wood like oak would provide. Making it the type of wood that falls under the category “I guess if it’s cheap or free, and onhand you might as well burn it type of wood.

Other Uses For Aspen

Although, quaking aspen timber isn’t ideal for having a fire, ironically enough, one of the purposes we have for aspen is they get whittled down into matchsticks. Yup, if you are inept at providing a warming fire, we’ll just put you to work as a fire starter.

Amongst, the other purposes we have for quaking aspen are tiny teeth jabbers, aka toothpicks. Oh, and lastly this robot lady on YouTube states that aspen can be used for and I quote “cheap furniture…aspen rarely used for furniture, but sometimes, for cheap furniture that won’t get a lot of wear or abuse” unquote. Seriously? Why would one ever want “cheap furniture” that never gets used? If you found yourself surrounded by this type of furniture I believed this constitutes onhand wood you might as well burn. Honestly, it blows my mind. I’ve viewed this video 1,994 times and still can’t believe my ears. Anyways enough about me back to those trembling aspens.

You must be thinking “Lee there cannot be any more uses for quaking aspen, can there?”  Well, actually not only does the quaking aspen have practical usage like matches, toothpicks, and cheap furniture (shivver), it also embodies medicinal properties. Actually, American aspen have a storied history in respect to herbal use

Medicinal Properties

It was often employed by North American indigenous tribes who used it as an antiseptic for treating wounds, skin issues and respiratory disorders. The bark plays a significant role in modern medicine by containing a quality known as salicylates (obviously I know it’s pronounced suh-li-suh-leits, I doubt that helped you), which is an element of aspirin. Oh, are you connecting some dots right now? Aspen… ASP-irin… eh, get it… ugh…

Hey gentlemen, here’s a public service announcement about this paragraph, it contains the topic of women’s lady parts and blood-flow, so if this stuff makes you feel uncomfortable skip these next few sentences. Ok now that we’ve got the weak-minded men out of this paragraph, ladies I’ll let you in on a little secret, there is evidence that a tea developed from the root bark is used as a treatment for excessive menstrual bleeding, and assists with alleviating those pesky cramps. Honestly, ladies you amaze me, you’re all so strong to be able to get through that, truthfully, I have troubles making it through the mornings after a night of thirty hot wings… so bravo ladies.

Find Yourself Hungry and Alone in Aspen Forest?

Alright boys welcome back, and oh boy we are about to get into man shit. Remember when I talked about how those over browsing deer, elk, and moose are gorging themselves on the supple flavours from the young aspen? Well, guess what? We’re going to bring the fight to them by learning how to fashion a bow from an aspen branch.

You want to start by grabbing a branch about five feet in length and make a notch around the middle of the piece of aspen aka a shooting ledge. I mean you don’t need a ledge, but it helps accuracy and we’re aiming for deer hearts gentlemen, so you want to be as accurate as possible. Once the ledge is complete you want to mark your handle, you basically take your hand and place it over the ledge and mark it down, that way you’ll know where to start your limbs. Now, you’ll want to grab your knife and start shaving away the bark (maybe keep it for some fire starter to cook with later). After the hacking of the bark is complete smooth it out with your knife, or if you; like me, always have sandpaper with you use that. After that just string that bad boy up, and get out there to save some young trembling aspen. If you are one of “those” people that finds yourself in a forest with wifi my boy John Stallone gives a pretty good description on how to make a piece of aspen into a lethal weapon, I just wish he figured out how to balance sound volume…

Ladies and gentlemen, those are some of the uses for trembling aspen.

In Case Nature Hasn’t Made You Enough

So, you’re thinking Lee how do these quaking aspen trees keep Pando-ing across North America. As I’ve done so far to you by germinating seeds of facts into your mind, I want to get into how to actually germinate trembling aspen seeds themselves.

As you would expect with such a trembling tree the seeds are actually super tiny, smaller than Marilyn Monroe’s famous beauty mark, ok there’s lots of things smaller than that, they’re more like the size of a Marilyn Monroe eye crusty… Even though they are tiny the seeds, not MM’s eye booger, grow into seedlings and then into a tree. You’re probably thinking “no shit, Lee just tell us how they germinate already!” Ok, ok, on it. 

Germination of Quaking Aspen

Quaking aspen germinate through a technique called sow under glass. No, this doesn’t mean you’re planting it under a piece of glass to germinate, rather you’re planting them in a moisture filled dome. A legit biodome. The best way to do this is by grabbing a clear plastic garbage bag and two plastic vegetable seed flats, one being for water so the water will seep up. DON’T YOU DARE ADD WATER TO THE SOIL or I will send creepy Greg from accounting to your home…

Step 1

Grab your seed starting mix and fill up each flat. Next grab the dust size quaking aspen seeds and dump them into the flat. You want anywhere between 10-15 seeds into each compartment of the flat. 

Step 2

Lift up the flat with your precious seeded soil mix and dump a good layer of water into the bottom flat. Just leave the seeds on top of the soil because the water will work its way up to find the soil. Grab that plastic bag and place the flat inside. 

Step 3

Move your “artisanal” sow under a glass kit into a sunny room and watch that bad boy collect more moisture than a… you know what I’m going to restrain myself here, and try to keep this PG-13-ish. 

Check on it every couple of days to see if there is enough moisture being collected in your homemade biosphere. If there isn’t; guess what you should do? Yup, add water to the bottom flat. 

This entire germinating process takes about one to two weeks on average. When ready grab those sprouted seeds and move them into a container large enough to get them growing.

Propagation

Let’s make that green thumb even more green by discussing how to propagate a quaking aspen. You can click this long PDF to get more info, or you can strap in and learn the ways from moi – that’s French for “me” for all you uncultured swine people.

The trembling aspen is generally propagated from root cuttings. The best time of year to start hacking away at some roots is early spring after the threat of frost has dethawed. Now, you don’t want to start slicing at any aspen root, you want to ensure the roots you are collecting are vigorously healthy (like me) adult trees.

The roots should be about a half inch to one inch in diameter, and as long my… umm… nevermind. The root should be one foot in length. Make sure the roots don’t dry out like most women around creepy Greg. Wrap them in a damp newspaper, and place them in a plastic bag for transport.

Once, you’ve collected all your moist roots, it is best advised to plant them as soon as possible. Plant the root cuttings in a box with light compost peat mix about 4 inches deep. Then cover those cuttings with around 2 inches of the same peat compost mix.

The root cuttings should start to sucker or develop new shoots after four to six weeks, and if harvested regularly for cuttings, new suckers will continue to sprout out up to 12 weeks. These new shoots can be used to propagate new trees.

Herbaceous cuttings should be taken after the shoot has grown to be around four inches. The cuttings should then be treated by a rooting hormone. Please don’t ingest these rooting hormones you won’t get any taller men.

We then place the cuttings in a 50/50 perlite peat mix ensuring the environment is temperature controlled (75 degrees) and has high humidity. Don’t let them dry out! After several weeks rooting should have taken place, and you can move the new trees outside.

The aspens can then be transplanted into bigger pots where they can develop into larger trees. These trees can be planted the following year or that fall after growth has stopped.

I’ll give you one more method to propagate this deciduous tree because I’m a generous man. A method named hardwood cutting; for unobvious reasons, is another effective way to propagate the quaking aspen. Again you want to use hardwood cuttings that have been taken from a vigorous elder from the previous year’s growth.

Make sure to collect the material in early spring, and trim it to be a foot or so in length, cutting just below and above the bud. Dip the base of the cutting into a hormone rooting powder (ok, you know how I know the rooting hormone doesn’t make you grow taller, I snorted it, yeah, it wasn’t a good time in my life, but I was 14 and really wanted to make the varsity basketball team, so yeah, shame me if you want, but I’m just here giving you pertinent info for you short guys out there, this isn’t a solution).

Plant the cuttings deeply into well drained soil or compost, and again, don’t let it dry out. Seriously, if you left anything dry out at this point after I’ve said not to, then I’m curious how you’ve made it this far in life. These cuttings can actually produce strong new shoots throughout spring and summer and can get to a size to plant out after one growing season.

Hopefully after all this germination and propagation information you just read you will have your own backyard Pando in no time.

Where to Buy Quaking Aspens 

If seeds, and hacking at roots isn’t your thing don’t worry Lee has you covered. You can in fact buy quaking aspen trees in a variety of sizes. Heading down to your local nursery or tree farm, cuts out all the hardship of germinating or propagating.

Now, I’m not going to give you locations specific to where you live, but rather general information along with some pros and cons on acquiring your own trembling tree. If you are interested and having trouble finding a specific location I created this interactive guide that might help some of you. 

What to Look For at a Nursery

It is so important when picking a tree at nursery that you be picky; you can’t be like creepy Greg and just take anything from anyone. Seriously Greg. Gross. Those pictures from your Jersey trip. You need to get checked out. Anyway you want that aspen to mean something to you. As you’ll notice nursery trees are often container grown, or balled in burlap. This is what you should keep your eye out for:

  • Minimal scarring on that white trunk and limbs
  • No dead branches
  • A healthy complexion, don’t buy one under the notion that it’s ugly so it’s cute (I’m looking at you women)
  • No blotches or holes on the leaves
  • A strong central trunk
  • With those burlap balled trees make sure the trunk is loose enough to dig your finger underneath it

Now you know what to look for, I’ll elucidate that mind of yours with some benefits of having a quaking aspen purchased from a nursery.

There’s staff on hand to ask your annoying questions to

Oftentimes a nursery will have experienced staff on hand to help give an idea on how to landscape for such a tree. It’s doubtful they will know as much as me, but hopefully they will be able to explain some key details in choosing the right tree and how to maintain it. They’ll also know how to deal with diseases (No, Greg they won’t be able to help you) that may contend with your quaking aspen.

Healthier trees

Nurseries often offer healthier quaking aspen. A nursery will be more expensive than your big-box retailer, but your tree will probably be healthier, and better-adjusted. Plus, you’ll have those staff members who actually care about their trees versus some 15-year old who could care less what happens in his life let alone a tree.

Lastly, nursery trees are fed A1 grade soil while caring for the tree. The trees often live longer, and look more aesthetically pleasing. Obviously important, right ladies? Furthermore, the nutrients that a nursery provides gets absorbed earlier on making them more resistant to disease. And, since you’re already purchasing a terrified tree you know you have to take all the disease precautions you can.

Landscape With Quaking Aspen 

Alright, a few pointers relating to landscaping with these quaking aspen. The short answer is probably don’t do it. Yeah, like actually don’t bother. Unless you want leaves all over the place clogging up your entire existence I would error on the side of not worth it.

Look I am here to be honest with you, Master of men and personal hero Bob Vila recently wrote on his blog “10 Trees That Spell Trouble for Your Yard” and guess who made that list… the fucking quaking aspen, yup! Sure, they look majestic with creamy bark and yellow foliage, but as we (and by “we” I mean me) have talked about a single tree can spawn into a tiny forest, which would probably piss off your neighbors if you live in the suburbs. Even, if it has the ability to block the wind, it whines and trembles like a coward. Do you really want to own a coward tree? No. So, unless you have a specific reason to plant one just leave trembling aspen in the hands of Mother Nature.

You Made it!

Congrats, you now probably know more about a trembling aspen more than anyone from Ohio and most of your friends. Even though; let’s be honest, it’s probably a real small group of friends considering you just read over 4000 words about a timid tree, but way to go! I’m glad I could facilitate imbuing that mind of yours.

Hopefully you go and enjoy some moments in the PNW with those quaking aspen, because even though they’re terrible to own on your property, and you can’t really make a warm fire with them, and they make terrible furniture, and they clog your gutters with leaves, they are a stunning tree to experience in nature. They emit the fragrance of fall, and truly create a symphony of leaves that propels you out of your body (no, I’m not micro-dosing) … so again get out there and make some time for these quirky quaking trees.

 Again, thank you for attention and your time!

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