Stands of aspen are genetic clones that may perhaps be centuries old

For the past few years, I’ve had a bit of a photographic obsession with aspen poplar (Populous tremuloides) trees.

It is interesting to note the wide variety of shared characteristics clones will display

It is interesting to note the wide variety of shared characteristics clones will display

For the past few years, I’ve had a bit of a photographic obsession with aspen poplar (Populous tremuloides) trees.

I learned in an ecology course that poplars grow in clones, but I’d made only cursory notice of them in my travels over the years. I had observed that they were small and stunted in the dry and windy regions of the province but towered to massive heights where growing conditions were more favourable.

In spring, I noticed that some trees leafed out earlier than others. In the fall, I admired the woods when they became emblazoned with patchworks of yellow and orange.

It was on a quiet drive home one late fall afternoon when everything changed. The magical mixing of a low sun, a sleepy soft haze and a stand of distinctive-looking aspens caused me to take more careful note.

From that moment of really “seeing” poplars, my sojourns along highways and byways have been enriched (and usually take longer!) by observing and photographing the artistic beauty and amazing diversity of these, our most common trees.

All the trees (called suckers) in each aspen clone are identical expressions of the same root. Clones can range from two to several hundred trees and, although the individual stems are relatively short-lived, the clone itself can keep sending out new suckers for centuries.

Each tree will grow to be the same size and exhibit the same unique colour, trunk shape and branching structures as all the others. They will even lean in the same direction and break off at the same point when they die.

They burst into green at the same moment in the spring and turn in unison to their own distinctive shades of yellow or orange in the fall. And they will finally yield their leaves back to the earth in a unified flutter.

After several years of observation and many hundreds of photographs, I am still amazed by the diversity of clone shapes, colours, sizes and patterns.

Amazing also is the fact that the world’s heaviest known living organism is a poplar clone in Utah. It covers 106 acres, contains around 47,000 suckers and is estimated to be 80,000 years old. It weighs 6,615 tonnes.

Winter is a good season to observe poplar clones because their unique characteristics are easy to pick out. The next time you’re out walking or driving, take a good look at the aspens that grace our backyards, neighbourhoods and driving routes. You’ll be impressed by what you see.

Myrna Pearman is a biologist and site manager at the Ellis Bird Farm. contact her at mpearman@ellisbirdfarm.ca

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said growing COVID-19 case numbers continue to be a concern in the province. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Alberta announces 1,077 new COVID-19 cases Thursday

There are currently 14,052 active cases in the province

Head coach Jason Chatwood, left, sports one of the Sylvan Lake Gulls’ first on-field hats next to Aqil Samuel, general manager and president of baseball operations, earlier this year.
Sylvan Lake Gulls ticket sales off to flying start

With the inaugural season quickly closing in, the Sylvan Lake Gulls hit… Continue reading

Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Alberta’s chief medical health officer publicly criticizes staffer who leaked info

EDMONTON — Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, dealing with rocketing COVID-19… Continue reading

The RCMP major crimes unit is investigating after a person was found dead at a residence on Stewart Street in Red Deer’s Sunnybrook neighbourhood Wednesday afternoon. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
Red Deer RCMP investigating suspicious death in Sunnybrook

A ‘deceased adult’ was found by officers

A detail from Canyon Light, an oil painting by Joan Clement, in the Scale exhibit by members of the Red Deer Art Club. It’s showing at the Viewpoint Gallery in the city’s Culture Services Centre. (Contributed image).
Outdoor art gallery and scavenger hunt is on in Red Deer next month

But First Friday receptions and patio concerts are postponed

Mahomes vs. Brady spices up Thanksgiving holiday week

Mahomes vs. Brady spices up Thanksgiving holiday week

Cowboys miss chance for NFC East lead with another home loss

Cowboys miss chance for NFC East lead with another home loss

Arsenal, Leicester, Hoffenheim advance in Europa League

Arsenal, Leicester, Hoffenheim advance in Europa League

Keegan Messing performs during the Men's Short program at the 2020 Canadian Tire National Skating Championships in Mississauga, Ont., Friday, Jan. 17, 2020. If the world figure skating championships do go ahead in a bubble in March in Sweden, there is a good chance Canada won't be there. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Canada might not compete at world figure skating championships – if they happen

Canada might not compete at world figure skating championships - if they happen

A piece of hockey history is up for sale, with a rare Vancouver Millionaires sweater, seen in an undated handout photo, hitting the auction block. The cream and maroon wool cardigan is believed to have belonged to Hall of Fame goalie Hugh Lehman, who backstopped the Millionaires to a Pacific Coast Hockey Association championship in 1922-23. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Lelands Auction, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Hockey history up for sale as 97-year-old Vancouver Millionaires sweater hits auction

Hockey history up for sale as 97-year-old Vancouver Millionaires sweater hits auction

Canada’s Nembhard scores 11 points off the bench in Gonzaga debut

Canada’s Nembhard scores 11 points off the bench in Gonzaga debut

Mighty Heart is breezed by exercise rider Des McMahon, at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. Woodbine Entertainment says it has officially cancelled the rest of its thoroughbred racing season following discussions with the Ontario government. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Woodbine Racetrack ends horse racing season after talks with provincial government

Woodbine Racetrack ends horse racing season after talks with provincial government

As Alberta’s COVID-19 cases rise, so does tension over world junior championship

As Alberta’s COVID-19 cases rise, so does tension over world junior championship

Most Read