These trees, which have intrigued me for so long, are most likely Populus grandidentata, the White Poplar or American Aspen.
Their light colored bark, graceful form, and shimmering foliage always catches my eye as we drive past them on the Colonial Parkway near Jamestown Island.
Part of what makes them so striking is their grouping. It is as though a seedling tree were planted on each point of a five pointed star. This lovely group of five trees gives the impression of a group of five very tall chlidren dancing in a ring, hands clasped, and heads looking back and up at the sky. When the wind blows through their branches they are alive with movement.
It has taken me months to learn their name, and I’m still not positive. Now that the flowers have emerged, I’ve been able to sort through photos and information online to more closely identify them.
They definitely belong to the Populus genus, along with so many other light barked trees. The Populus grandidentata, is also known as “Bigtooth Aspen” for the relatively large “teeth” along the edges of each leaf. This species is native to the Northeastern United States, unlike the “Quaking Aspen” which is a native of Northern Europe and Asia.
Preferring the more northern climate zones, these American Aspen trees are living on the very southern edge of their range. They grow north into southern Canada, around Nova Scotia, and west to areas around the Great Lakes.
Of medium size, roughly to 80′, these trees are considered fast growing. They demand full sun, but will tolerate a wide range of soil conditions. They produce high quality, very straight grained timber.
Because these tress prefer full sun, they tend to colonize disturbed areas ahead of other species of tree. They don’t do well growing up through an area already forested.
They are also extremely beautiful, in all seasons. We drove past them late in the afternoon, as the sun was low towards the horizon earlier this week.
The late afternoon sun caught and reflected in their newly emerged catkins, lightng these trees up like torches. The catkins carry the pollen, but will also produce the seeds further into the summer. The seeds will disperse on the wind. A lively group of “children” grow across the road, in the edge of the treeline.
The American Aspen will also produce “clones” growing from their very shallow roots. Should the tree be damaged in a storm, or perhaps cut, new trunks will sprout from the roots to create a stand of trees, identical to the parent.
These trees are a relatively recent addition along the Colonial Parkway. This stretch was completed in the 1950s, which makes it roughly 60 years old now.
This stand of American Aspens was most likely planted around this time. These trees aren’t considered long-lived. Although individuals may last a century, many experts say that individual trees go into decline at around 60 or 70 years.
This stand is mature, but appears to be still very healthy and vibrant. There is a sunken area in the center of this stand, where water collects when it rains.
It makes me wonder whether perhaps a single tree once stood here, and this cluster has grown in its place. Perhaps it was cut when the Parkway was built, and this group grew from its original roots. It remains a mystery.
Perhaps someone reading this knows these trees, and perhaps can share what they know about them. Until then, we’ll continue to stop and appreciate their beauty, and also to photograph them as the season progresses.