Poplars not popular … but they should be

It would appear our drought of several years has finally come to an end. Awakening to the sound of rain gently falling on our metal roof for most of the month has been a treat.

It would appear our drought of several years has finally come to an end. Awakening to the sound of rain gently falling on our metal roof for most of the month has been a treat.

I love the sound of rain. I had almost forgotten how the world smells after it has fallen.

You just don’t get the same effect from a watering can. And no matter how diligent you are about packing water, plants just don’t thrive from hand watering the way they will from a rainfall; a bit odd when you think about it, given that all of our water originates from rain.

And it’s not just the chemicals they use to treat water to blame.

Even water from a dugout or a rain barrel doesn’t make plants jump to life like a good rain will. It has something to do with the humidity in the air or fresh nitrogen being released or some such thing.

Whatever the science is behind it, I am just grateful it happens. Nature is pretty wonderful. Most of the time.

My sister who lives in Prince George has been listening to the sound of rain in her garden as well; except she hears it even when it isn’t raining.

A disconcerting situation to say the least! They are currently facing an infestation of tent caterpillars that have been defoliating their trees. It turned out the rain-like noise was actually the sound of thousands of caterpillars munching leaves.

It’s like something out of a science fiction thriller movie. People are shoveling the caterpillars off doorsteps and walkways.

In some areas there are so many worms on the highway vehicles are going into a skid as they lose traction over a foundation of slippery caterpillar carcasses.There are snow tires, summer tires and all season radials but to the best of my knowledge Bridgestone has yet to come up with a wheel for worm conditions.

We have had similar infestations up here in the past, but so far (knock wood) the sound of rain is just the sound of rain.

However there are places around us where the poplars are in trouble. Large stands of trees are either failing to leaf out at all or only unfurling a few insignificant clumps.

It looks similar to what has been happening in the Rockies over the past 10 years. Labelled SAD (Sudden Aspen Decline) the phenomenon has been decimating poplar groves in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and other areas of the Rockies.

The causes are uncertain. The bronze poplar borer is often present in dying stands but unlike the pine beetle these insects usually don’t kill the trees.

They do weaken them however, as do a multitude of other factors, such as drought which has also been a problem in the areas affected.

Aspens grow in colonies; each tree is a genetic clone of the one beside it.

There is a stand in Utah that covers 108 acres and—depending on what paper you read—is said to be the world’s heaviest, largest or oldest organism.

While individual aspens can live up to 150 years, the colonies themselves can be thousands of years old. Usually when aspens are attacked by insects or disease or wiped out by wildfire the colony responds by sending up a profusion of new shoots.

Anyone who mows a lawn within throwing distance of an aspen has witnessed their tenacity.

Leave a lawn un-mowed for just a few days and tiny aspen shoots will soon be standing a foot high in an effort to reclaim their space. The disturbing thing is the stands in the Rockies don’t seem to be doing this. They are simply dying out.

I’m not sure if that’s the case here.

Hopefully the recent rains will turn things around. We are still reeling from the loss of our pines to the pine beetle.

Losing our aspen as well would make for a desolate landscape to say the least. Given nature’s way, I suppose something would come along to replace them but as the song goes “we don’t know what we have ‘til it’s gone.” In the case of aspens—and other poplars—gardeners curse them and landscapers shun them.

Their ability to grow in harsh climates has given them a weedy reputation.

Even so, few western Canadians would feel at home without aspen’s lemon foliage making a splash against the cobalt autumn sky.

In the summer the soft sound of their quivering leaves foretelling a storm or simply moving in the breeze is as indigenous to our culture as the call of a goose.

And is there a more uplifting sight than a hillside covered in their lime green leaves in the spring? So let it rain, I won’t complain. It could be worse.

Shannon McKinnon is a syndicated columnist from Northern BC. You can catch up on past columns by visiting www.shannonmckinnon.com