Gateway Gazette

Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park: Aspen Popular Trees

Aspen popular (Populus tremuloides), commonly known as the trembling aspen, is a deciduous tree native to the cooler areas of North America. If there was a prize for the most impressive tree, this one would win! The trembling aspen is the most widely distributed tree in North America, being found in Canada to Mexico. Aspens are noted for their incredible ability to reproduce by sprouting shoots and suckers along a lateral root. This root sprouting generates identical trees, in a structure called a “clone”. One clone of aspen trees is considered a singular organism with their main life support being underground. Perhaps the most impressive feature of the aspen is its ability to survive the cold winters of Alberta. In winter, when most deciduous trees are in dormancy, the aspen tree keeps producing sugar and energy.  Beneath their thin white layer of bark there is a green photosynthetic layer that can produce the sugars for the aspen. This adaptation can also be useful for moose, black bears and beavers in winter as it is a source of food.

When you have the time, take a moment to sit down underneath the aspen trees in the park. They are called trembling aspen as you can distinctly hear them moving in the wind. The aspen “tremble” because their leaf petiole is flattened and is longer than the leaf blade. This structure makes the leaf sensitive to the smallest movement of air. This adaptation allows the leaf to twist easily, which helps the leaves resist the strong Alberta winds. An interesting fact about the aspen is that they are dioecious, meaning that individual trees are male or female (in contrast to male and female flowers occurring on the same tree). During the springtime, you can find the flowers that are found in catkins, which look like soft fuzzy caterpillars hanging from twigs. The male catkins emerge in late winter, and during the springtime have red/pink pollen sacs to release the pollen into the air. The female catkins turn green, and capsules form to release their fluffy seeds.

For the Indigenous people, the aspen trees hold an important role. Throughout history, traditional and ecological knowledge has helped non-Indigenous and Indigenous people through hardships. During the World Wars and times of food scarcity, the inner bark was used as a food source. The wood also had a role in the production of manufactured goods. Traditional uses of the wood would include the production of tipi poles, fish traps, canoes, baskets and boiled down to use as a soap. An important medicinal role of the bark was the cough syrup the Indigenous people would make by boiling it. The bark can also make syrup if tapped.

The Stoney-Nakoda, who have an important relationship with the park, would use the trembling aspen to create the Nakoda love flute (cha wasabi). The love flute would be used when Nakoda men were eager to impress a lady. The men would play the handcrafted wooden flute in hopes to get the girls attention. If the partners ended up getting married, the male would tie the love flute together with another flute, symbolizing the couple as one.
You can see these beautiful trees all around the park. Next time you see one, take the time to admire everything these trees have to offer!

Submitted by Akaysha Envik

Visit Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park online and in person.

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