September 13, 2011 at 12:35 PM

Populus Tremuloides

"Known to its friends as Quaking Aspen, this is one of the most widespread species on the planet"

By Karen Denison

At Home Outdoors

Karen Denison is owner of Outspire Hiking and Snowshoeing guide service, a former biologist, and a shameless admirer of the outdoors.

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Known to its friends as Quaking Aspen, this is one of the most widespread species on the planet.  If you followed its range, you would travel in a circle around the North Pole across North America, northern Europe and Asia.  It occupies a band of territory in mostly northerly climes reaching up toward the tree-less tundra and not venturing very far south--except for here in New Mexico!

This is a tree which is well adapted to the thin light of the north with its long winters.  The smooth, thin bark is translucent and houses a layer of chlorophyll. So, unlike most other deciduous trees with their corky bark, aspens are able to utilize the sunlight of winter to maintain themselves at a minimal level, even without their leaves. When springtime rolls around, the real business of growing begins with the emergence of the bright green leaves.

So if it's such a good northern tree, why is it here?  Once upon a time, a long time ago, New Mexico was not as it is today.  During the last Ice Age, about 15,000 years ago, the land which is now New Mexico was cold and wetter.  There were small glaciers over Truchas Peaks and farther north.  It's thought that "our" aspens got their foothold here during that time period.

So are these trees 15,000 years old?  That turns our to be a tougher question.  Aspen trunks only live 80-100 years at most, but the roots may live much longer by sprouting up more trunks.  Older parts of the rootstock may die, but newer "branches" of the rootstock may live on happily.  Aspens do propagate through seeds as well (although infrequently), so we can't really know for sure whether a particular individual has been reinventing itself from its roots for millennia or sprouted from a seed a mere few hundred years ago.

At any rate, aspens have been a part of our landscape for a very long time.  Enjoy them, especially this month during the glory of their golden fall colors.

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