Known for its bright yellow fall colors, the aspen tree is one of the most popular trees in North America. The quaking aspen is the most-planted variety, and is so named because of the way its flat branches shimmer in the wind. If, when you hear the words aspen tree, you think of Colorado, you’re not alone. Colorado and Utah have the distinction of having the largest numbers of aspen trees in the world. An aspen tree likes to live at 8,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level.
The aspen tree is a cloned tree, meaning it reproduces exact specimens of itself on top of the same, old roots. These are called suckers when they start out and they can eventually spread over a large region. The aspen tree is usually the first growth after a fire because the root system is protected, being so far under the ground.
The aspen is a hardy tree and is relatively easy to grow. It does like lots of sunshine and needs quite a bit of water to thrive. Since they grow at such a high altitude, this moisture can be provided by snow. An Aspen tree can grow five feet each year, usually to a height of around 50 feet. The width span can be up to 25 feet. It grows best when cultivated from root cuttings.
The aspen does not like to be a solitary tree. Because they grow naturally in stands with many trees atop the same expanding root system, growing just one aspen tree can be difficult. Aspen trees are particularly vulnerable to disease when alone and also in stands when trees begin to age. Fire is actually integral to the survival of the aspen tree. It slows the growth of softwoods, which if allowed to grow continually will stifle and drown out the aspen trees. Aspens need the open spaces for its suckers to grow.
Aspen are an important tree for wildlife habitat with more than 500 different creatures depending on it. These include elk, deer, bears, rabbits and smaller animals, such as mice and beaver. All types of aspen allow more sunlight to reach through the branches to the ground than other trees, creating all different varieties of plants and shrubs on the forest floor. These include chokecherries, serviceberry shrubs, grasses and wonderful collections of wildflowers.
Birds like the variety of shrubs within aspen stands, which provide ample food as well as the branches of the tree itself which can shelter and protect. The fact that they provide good bird habitat is also a consideration for many people who love them as backyard trees--this, and of course the knowledge that in the fall an aspen tree is one of the brightest and most colorful to be found. While the Eastern U.S. abounds in hardwoods whose leaves change to spectacular colors, the West does not, and needs the aspen tree to lend color, especially at higher elevations. There is absolutely no denying the beauty of an aspen tree.