When West Virginia’s mountainous forests put on their flamboyant show of fireworks before turning inward for the long dark of winter, a full palette of color is on display. Some of the most brilliant yellows belong to our beloved aspens, their spade-shaped leaves holding on just a bit longer than the maples’, often the last blotches of gold left shivering in the crisp November winds.
Most people associate aspen trees with climes west of the Mississippi—seemingly endless forests that paint the barren shoulders of the Rocky Mountain in shades of mint during the short alpine summer before transitioning to gold-streaked gulches in fall. But aspens populate the ridges and valleys of higher altitudes right here in the Mountain State, helping to cure those inevitable pangs of wanderlust when the grandiose landscapes of the West come calling.
With its signature white bark and fluttering leaves, the quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) can seem a tad out of place here in East. The quaking aspen, however, is the most widely distributed tree on the North American continent, ranging from boreal latitudes in Canada to small pockets scattered throughout Mexico. On the Dolly Sods Plateau, itself a slice of Canada gone astray, wind-stunted quaking aspens dot the rugged landscape, their yellow leaves contrasting like flittering bars of bullion against the crimson blueberry shrubs and dark-green spruce groves in autumn.
Although the quaking aspen is dispersed throughout the continent, the quaking aspen swamps and the herbaceous plants they contain in Canaan Valley constitute a globally rare vegetation association community. Fortunately, these rare and unique wetlands thrive within the confines of Canaan Valley Resort State Park and are protected for enjoyment and that of future generations.
The leaves of the quaking aspen feature a flat stem that runs perpendicular to the leaf blade, causing the leaves to tremble in even the lightest breeze. One need only stand for a moment among a thicket of these cacophonous trees on a windy day to understand their name. It sounds as though the forest is whispering to itself, informing all other creatures of your presence.
The smooth, white bark features old branch scars that look like eyes watching your every move, adding a voyeuristic feel to the sounds of the woodland whispers. Given that aspens communicate with one another via chemical signals in their tangled roots, perhaps that anthropomorphism isn’t too farfetched.
We are fortunate here in West Virginia to enjoy another species of aspen. Growing up to 75 feet tall, the bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata) can dominate sections of forest canopy, covering more ground throughout the Mountain State than the quaking aspen. The bigtooth aspen is easily distinguishable from its quivering cousin by its curvy, toothed leaves. As it matures, its bark becomes dark gray with deep ridges and fissures, making it easily mistaken for chestnut oak (Quercus montana).
Aspen trees reproduce by wind-dispersed seeds from flowers called catkins, appearing in early spring as fuzzy, grayish tails hanging from the tips of twigs. However, these hardy trees can also multiply via clonal offshoots called root sprouts. Often, what looks like a grove of aspens is actually one massive organism, a cluster of cloned trees that shares a singular web of roots—and the same DNA.
Most aspen clone groves in West Virginia are just a few acres in size, but in the Western states, some clonal stands span nearly 100 acres. The Pando clone in Utah, the largest known aspen clonal colony, covers over 100 acres, weighs more than 14 million pounds, and is estimated to be around 80,000 years old.
When the crisp winds return to cool the autumnal air, venture out into the highlands with a hammock or a camp chair, find a spot among the golden canopy of the aspens, and tune in to the whispers of the forest.
Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors and swears he did not use Wikipedia to research this article.