80,000 Year-Old Tree

A clonal colony of quaking aspen in Utah has been estimated to be 80,000 years old. So what does that estimate mean in human terms? Ten thousand years ago, there were an estimated five million homo sapiens on Earth. (Now it is over seven billion, and growing.)

About 60,000 years ago, it is theorized a group of homo sapiens related to modern humans migrated out of Africa, dispersing to the areas known today as the Middle East, India and some moving into the Sinai peninsula and then gradually into Europe. (Recent evidence suggests this movement could have been 120,000 years ago.) If it occurred 60,000 years ago, Pando already would have been 20,000 years old. This is about the time Homo Sapiens are thought to have begun interbreeding with Neanderthals.

Called Pando, for “I spread”, the aspen colony is located in the Fishlake National Forest. Some believe Pando is not the oldest quaking aspen colony, and others that are far older may be discovered and documented. Though the many aspen trees appear to be individuals they are part of one huge living organism, with a massive root system. Another unique feature of aspen is that below their bark is a green photosynthetic layer which allows them to utilize sugars and continue growing during winter months.

Aspen grow in large colonies throughout North America, and can endure both very low and very high temperatures. They are called quaking aspen, because their leaves flutter frequently, even in a slight wind. The Pando colony covers 106 acres and the average age of the individual trunks is approximately 130 years, and the root system is the oldest part. Pando lives at 8,800 feet above sea level.

Aspen are very successful in asexual reproduction, which makes them able to survive direct attacks such as destructive attempts with bulldozers, fire, and even exposure to toxins. One of the only proven methods of killing aspen is injecting herbicides into the root system. Even heavy browsing by elk and deer only damages of kills individual aspen but not the self-renewing root systems. In nature on of the few true controls on aspen is pocket gophers in significant numbers, because they can chew through the roots systems faster than the grow.