The Big Picture: Pando, the world’s oldest living organism.

Populus tremuloides is a deciduous tree native to cooler areas of North America, one of several species referred to by the common name aspen. Quaking aspen propagates itself primarily through root sprouts, and extensive clonal colonies are common.

Each colony is its own clone, and all trees in the clone have identical characteristics and share a single root structure. A clone may turn color earlier or later in the fall than its neighboring aspen clones. Fall colors are usually bright tones of yellow; in some areas, red blushes may be occasionally seen.

As all trees in a given clonal colony are considered part of the same organism, one clonal colony, named Pando (pictured here), is considered the heaviest and oldest living organism at six million kilograms and perhaps 80,000 years old. Aspens do produce seeds, but seldom grow from them. Pollination is inhibited by the fact that aspens are either male or female, and large stands are usually all clones of the same sex. Even if pollinated, the small seeds (three million per pound) are only viable a short time as they lack a stored food source or a protective coating.

IMAGE CREDIT: J Zapell.


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