Catchy title, eh? Kinda reminds me of delirium tremens. I promise I had no intention of writing yet another post on a tree, but here we are. The annual family vacay is this week and this year, we are in Telluride, Colorado. As per usual, everyone is required to do a little happy hour talk about any topic relevant to where we are. Nothing too complicated, ok? And the boys are in charge of a joke a day. Harvey, being the oldest, is the designated chief jokester. We are all braced for an onslaught of made up off the cuff knock-knock jokes. “Corny” doesn’t even begin to describe what we will hear. And, since we will chuckle politely and guffaw occasionally, they will be repeated for hours on end. Painful as they are now, how I will miss these times in a decade when the knock-knock jokes have slipped away along with the sweet sloppy kisses and wide-eyed innocence.
But now, back to the tree called populous tremuloides but better known as the aspen. Rick and I came out to Telluride for the first time ten years ago. We were here in the fall and a miraculous thing happened one night. We woke the next morning and all the aspens had been transformed overnight. They were so beautiful with their grey-white trunks and leaves of gold contrasted with the clear cerulean sky. The leaves shimmered and “quaked’ as the wind swept down the mountains. We were in awe of the beauty of the forests as we glided quietly down the mountainside in the gondola from Mountain Village to downtown Telluride. I went home, pulled out my oils, and painted a pretty good stand of aspens. I have never forgotten how beautiful those trees were and wanted to try to share that beautiful imagery with our family. Even though it is summer and the leaves are green, it’s still beautiful and I chose the aspen tree as my report topic.
When you see a stand of aspens, you are not seeing a bunch of individual trees. What you are seeing is a “clone” of aspens. Every tree is an exact genetic replica of the other. You don’t see the major life force of the clone because it is the massive root system that is below the ground. The parent tree sends out root suckers that venture well over one hundred feet from the parent. The trees only live for 40-150 years, but the root system is just getting started at that point. New trees can come up from the root system for thousands of years. If two aspens have little differences such as a slight variation in leaf shape or size or perhaps the two change color in the fall at slightly different times, this is an indication that they are really from two different clones in close proximity.
The bark of the aspen tree photosynthetic, so the tree continues to grow even after the leaves drop in the fall. The bark is thin and when a hard winter comes along, that green sugary layer becomes an excellent food source for all kinds of animals such as elk, deer, bear, and moose. All this munching on the bark contributes to the loss of many young aspens, but their unique ability to clone themselves keeps them coming back, although there are lots of worry warts who fear the over-browsing will lead to the demise of the clones. These trees are rugged survivalists. Fires and floods may destroy trees, but just wait a while and up will come new clones from the root system. While they do have environmental challenges and are threatened by diseases, they have learned to adapt to all sorts of environments. The only requirement that seems non-negotiable is the need for abundant sunlight.
The ancient age of the giant Sequoias and Bristlecone Pines is well known, but few people are aware that the oldest aspen clone, named Pando, is thought to have come from a single male aspen tree sprouted from a seed at the end of the last Ice Age. Now the stand covers an impressive 106 acres and contains over 40,000-50,000 trees. In addition to being the oldest living organism, it is also thought to be the heaviest. How they can make the estimation is a mystery to me, but it is thought to weigh around 6,600 tons. You can find this marvel of nature in Fishlake National Forest in Utah.
Today, we spent a few hours with Grant, a wonderful guide from Dave’s Mountain Tours exploring the backcountry and waterfalls outside of Telluride. The aspens were quaking as we zipped past mountain streams and beautiful scenery. I will probably have more on our waterfall adventures with Grant later, but I have to end this post with a joke Grant told us since I mentioned jokes earlier. Grant told the boys that there is a crazy man in downtown Telluride and that everyone needs to be on the lookout for him when in town. Grant said that he is as crazy as can be and walks around drinking brake fluid. Everyone asks him why he does that and his reply is always the same: “I can stop at any time.” The boys didn’t get it, but I know you did. Go ahead and admit it, made you smile, didn’t it?