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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Day 7 Outdoors: In the Popple Grove

Wednesday, February 15, 8:30-9:35 a.m.

After a recent freeze and new snow and before the next thaw, the weather pauses. The sky is featureless, not much different in tone from the snow-covered ground. A slight breeze puffs rhythmically, setting hanging curls and spirals of bark in motion.

No one ever plants a popple grove.

Popples, or quaking aspen, are the pioneer species in our region. At the edge of a woodlot, or sometimes in the middle of a field, they establish a seemingly ingenuous foothold and from there, wherever mowers or traffic fail to check their forward movement, advance into field or lane. What looks like a collection of individual trees is more like a colony, united underground, and the colony’s will to go forth and multiply knows no bounds.

Our popple grove, as unintentional as any, has spread out to the north from the empty chicken house. (It begins to spread south, as well.) At one back corner, the northeast, an old silver maple, age-mate to the one in the front yard, claims a wide area, and in the midst of the popples a few young ash trees and at least one mulberry have managed to compete for space. Popples, however, are the predominant species. The ground is littered with fallen trunks and cut-off branches, and with new snow on the ground and half-covering the jumbled tree litter, footing is treacherous.

Where the grove ends at the edge of the yard is a brush pile, larger each year. Sometimes rabbits nest in the brush pile or, more simply, tucked into grass and weeds, hidden away at the base of a popple tree. There are no tracks around the brush pile today.

Popples may be weed trees, but no of them look alike. Some are fresh green-barked, straight, and tall. A few are old enough that their bark is dark brown and furrowed, almost black. Others—and not all of them old—have died standing. On these the bark has sloughed off in places and been peeled back in others. Where it has sloughed off, narrow winding trails appear in the wood. 

The more obviously present feeders on these trees, though, are woodpeckers. Each deep woodpeckers hole is surrounded by a large area of freshly worked wood, light and clean, and the ground at the base of trees where woodpeckers have fed is thick with sawdust. One woodpecker popple in the grove is also host to a quartet of shelf fungi. Each fungus, old enough to have taken on the mossy green of an old, abandoned Florida boat, today bears a cone-shaped serving of clean snow.

South of the popple grove and chicken house the view opens out to softly rounded hills—Claudia’s Woods to the southwest, then rows of orchard trees stretching to the East Woods, with dark pine trees on the horizon beyond. The open spaces ring with crow calls this morning. That sound is incessant today, the raucous cries of crows.


Gerry said...

You've captured it exactly - the way the hills fold into each other, the ways of the rabbits and the woodpeckers, the disingenuous popples. I like to visit your Home Ground.

P. J. Grath said...

I'm glad you like this quiet place of mine, Gerry. I wasn't happy with my sketching this week but included it, anyway, as part of the record, trying to keep myself honest.

Dawn said...

The 'narrow winding trails' in the wood on the trees where the bark has fallen off sound like the trails of the Emerald ash borer that decimated our ash trees here...I wonder if they have moved to other types of trees or if these insects just have similar habits?

P. J. Grath said...

Doubtful that the emeralds would bypass available ash trees to gnaw on popples. This is where we need an entomologist. In a way, I almost hated to describe the trails without being able to identify their makers. I'd really love to know....

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn’s question sent me on a search, and while I can’t give a definitive answer I did come up with a possibility (to check out with a friend who is a “bug man”) and several good information sources. One good one is forestimages.org where you can filter your results to look for tree damage by insects, mammals, or whatever. Here is a discussion of insects and aspens: http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_rm/rm_gtr119/rm_gtr119_107_114.pdf

The possibility I came up with—but I stress this is not a positive identification—is the bronze poplar borer. In Colorado this insect and its larvae are as dreaded as the emerald ash borer is in Michigan, but in Colorado quaking aspen is almost a natural monoculture, while our Michigan stands tend to be separated by fields, orchards, and stands of other species, both conifers and hardwoods. Is that why we’re not worried? Or is it that Colorado loves its quaking aspen and we take ours for granted, like weeds?

Photos by David Cappaert of MSU turn up on many bronze poplar borer sites.