Posted on

The Mysterious Aspen Grove

We spent some time in late October with our friend Cannon, who was staying in a cabin at 9000 feet in the edge of the Rocky Mountains outside of Durango, Colorado. It was the beginning of winter there. Temperatures were in the 20’s (F) at night (though it warmed up nicely during the days). The aspens on the mountainsides surrounding us were all bare, except for one bright yellow grove on the mountain above.

IMG_0660..

Could it be they were growing in a wet spot? Was this bright yellow patch in an area protected from the wind? We had to check it out. This required an expedition, and it was a steep ascent through thickets and scree, but we finally made it up to the grove to investigate. This grove was not in a moist depression. It shared the same exposure and moisture as the rest of the mountainside. We realized this was a clone. All the trees in this grove were probably sprouts from the same tree, all connected by common roots. And this particular grove (clone) had a unique genetic ability to hold onto its leaves which made it “stand out in the crowd.”

IMG_0668

This brings me back to the old question of what is the largest living organism. For many years people agreed it’s the blue whale– until someone pointed out that a giant sequoia tree is a living organism, and it’s bigger than a whale. And that’s where the debate stood until somebody else claimed that the largest living thing might actually be an aspen tree. You may wonder how an aspen tree, whose trunk rarely gets to be more than two feet in diameter, could be larger than a giant sequoia tree.
It turns out that an aspen tree puts out root sprouts, and those sprouts eventually become full grown trees which in turn put out many more sprouts and they all become a grove or an entire forest that’s one clone. The classic example is the Pando aspen clone in Utah which encompasses 106 acres and is made up of 40,000 individual trunks– all part of the same “tree”. And there are probably other larger clones yet to be discovered.

Then there’s the famous humongous fungus– but that’s another story… and you can read about it in Todd Elliott’s soon to be released new book Mushrooms of the Southeast.