Attracting Butterflies, Whale Hunting and Aspen Trees

An aspen grove of 47,000 trees in Utah holds the record as the world's largest living organism, the environmental impact of whaling., and how to attract butterflies to your yard.

| April/May 1993

The Largest Living Thing

Where one tree ends and another begins isn't always cut and dried. Imagine, for instance, a light wind gently rocking a forest full of quaking aspen trees in Utah's Wasatch mountains. A pleasant scene, but not terribly unusual, right? Wrong. This most usual group of trees has one unusual root system that supports all of the aspen grove's 47,000 trees.

This means that all these trees are considered one singular unit. The gargantuan mass spans 106 acres and weighs approximately 13.2 million pounds, surpassing the blue whale, the giant sequoia tree, and the world's largest soil fungus in sheer mass. It is, in fact, the largest living thing known to humankind.

Word got out when a team of Colorado professors, Michael Grant, Jeffrey Mitton, and Lan Linhart, wrote a letter about the aspen grove to the English Journal of Nature. They pointed out that all 47,000 stems began with one little seed. Of course the question everyone's asking now is how so many stems could spring from one root system. The answer is in the aspens' method of reproduction, Grant says. Most trees reproduce sexually, through airborne pollen. Aspens, he says, are the exception. "Wherever aspens occur, they most commonly reproduce asexually, through the root. Vertical shoots grow upwards forming trunks [or stems]."

Their method of root reproduction also makes aspens difficult to get rid of—the mother-in-law of plant life. You can clear-cut a whole hillside of aspens and the roots remain intact. Stems will pop right back up, claims Mitton. Luckily, the tree species is in no way a pest we have to worry about.

Because most aspen groves result from root reproduction, you'd think there'd be plenty more massive growths like the one in Utah. In fact, Grant says, other aspen groves boast even more stems, but usually these young stems die off.

So the next time you're out walking in the woods, keep a lookout for aspens that cluster together and clone one another. Similar leaf shapes, bark colors, and branch angles are tip-offs that they all share the root equivalent of an umbilical cord. Perhaps you'll discover an even larger living thing.

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