It takes many years to form a forest. But over a longer period
of time - 80,000 years, in fact - one special tree, and its several
hundred quaking aspen clones, have formed a colony.
And very little has shook it ever since.
The Pando (in Latin: "I spread") is a "clonal colony" of single
aspen, located in the Fishlake National Forest in south central
Utah. This 6,615-ton giant is a legend; in fact, its root system is
one of the oldest living organisms on Earth. And, as you may
imagine, the Pando is the heaviest species in existence.
The Pando acquired its great mass when stems, or genetically
identical trees, connected through a single underground root system
of aspen clones. The roots sprout up through the ground in the form
of trunks. The colony covers 105 acres of land, an area that
doesn't compare to a typical root system, no matter the size of the
With all those roots to keep up with, it's hard to imagine the
quaking aspen's only "absolute" requirement is a lot of
But despite Pando's massive size, its fragile, heart-shaped
leaves and its sensitivity to the breeze explain why the species
has its name. The leaves attach to branches on a long, flat
petiole, so even a slight breeze gives the tree a trembling
But trembling is only part of its name. Pando is also a giant.
It stands tall and strong against several harsh conditions,
including fire. Forest fires, no matter how severe, actually
encourage new aspen trunk growth because their damage allows
sunlight to reach the forest floor. This asexual or vegetative
reproduction process, also known as "root suckering," promotes
outstanding longevity and prevents aspens from being in danger of
going extinct. The Pando is the oldest known aspen colony, but
5,000- to 10,000-year-old clones are more common.
Black scars, or natural self-pruning marks, appear on the
aspen's lower branches, but the species is identified by its
smooth, white bark. Unlike birch bark, a species often confused
with aspen, aspen bark does not peel. In the fall, aspens stand out
with yellow and gold leaves - in rare occasions, red.
Spanning from locations such as New England, Canada, Alaska,
California, Arizona and New Mexico, the quaking
aspen can continue growing in winter while other trees go
dormant. Its photosynthetic green layer that lies beneath the white
outer bark allows the plant to synthesize sugars as well as help
deer and elk survive harsh winters.
Its name suggests unsteadiness and even anxiety and
apprehension. But after 80,000 years of existence, gradually
spreading to several regions of North America, the quaking aspen
has proved otherwise. With the exception of an occasional slight
flutter of its leaves, nothing - even forest fires - seems to phase
it. The quaking aspen is inspiring, beautiful and unique, and we
can assume it's here to stay for many more thousands of years.