Stands of trembling aspen have to be one of my favorite trees in the bush—to look at. Many of my friends come from Ontario and have no appreciation for these trees. “A nuisance” they call them. “Weeds.” and “Good for nothing.” They comes from the land of the Maple. Their families have woodlots full of hardwoods and sugar bush for maple syrup. Wood is serious business back East. Yet, wood is useful out West too! And we do have some incredibly useful trees as well, like the quaking aspen.
I first was intimately acquainted with aspens when I was riding a tall Percheron-cross named Gilligan through the Alberta Rockies on an exploring trip with a group of staff wranglers working for a wilderness Bible Camp. It was my first experience riding and working with horses in the mountains, and I had already done numerous rides up the sides of mountains that summer. I was starting to learn (greenhorn that I was), to use my hands to push away from trees to avoid getting my kneecaps rubbed off by a lazy or devious horse. I also was picking up on the trick of using the toe of my boot to move the horse off a close tree trunk to again save my vulnerable legs and knees.
However, that day we were deep in an aspen thicket trying to find our way out of “new” territory. We weren’t lost, exactly, we just didn’t know how to get from where we were, to where we needed to go.
I was last in line, the greenhorn always bringing up the rear. Gilligan was appointed me by wrangler Mark, as the horse to teach me how to ride in the mountains. (Also, I learned later, that Mark gave him to me because he was the biggest, tallest horse and I had too-tight jeans at the time and he thought it was funny to watch me try and stretch and reach for the stirrups on tall Gilligan. After considerable hopping I would managed to heave myself aloft. Thanks Mark, you were really funny.) Anyway, I was following the rest of the group on their small horses—horses much more suited for bush-whacking than tall Gilligan—when we came to a tight spot. By tight, I mean aspen trees like vertical skewers, inches apart. The first riders had to really squeeze their way through a narrow hole in the grove of tightly packed trunks. I stopped Gilligan before he followed and tried to reroute him. There was no alternative. There was only one hole in the wall of trees around us and we had to go through. Gilligan was getting antsy from being left behind by his mates and didn’t like that I was holding him back. He threw up his head and ripped the reins out of my hands and before I could say “Greased Pickle” we slammed through the hole. Or tried. I stopped the freight-train dash with the sides of my calves wedged tight against two powder white trunks. Gilligan drew back slightly and rammed once more at the hole and busted through! I think I screamed, I think I might have even swore, but we caught up with the group and Gilligan was appeased to have his nose back up another horses tail. I, on the other hand, couldn’t feel my legs for the rest of the ride and ended up with deep scabby bruises on the sides of my calves that took weeks to heal.
From that time on I had a deep fear of aspen thickets and tight spaces while riding. I guess I eventually got used to riding in thick brush, or I just became adapt at steering my horses away from tight spots, but I still hate riding through aspen thickets. I never really appreciated aspens and the role they play in nature until a number of years later while working on an educational ride for Native American teenagers. One of the “guest” speakers was David Finch, a skillful historian and storyteller. He wrote a biography on R.M. Patterson, a British adventurer and explorer of Canada, who was the first person to photograph the falls of Nahanni, NWT. (a huge dream of mine to go see)
One day on this trip, we were riding next to each other and he started pointing out things to me about Aspen trees. He told me to rub my hand down the white bark of an aspen while we were riding by. A filmy white powder covered my hands. He told me the Cree used to use that fine powder, called bloom, as an effective sunscreen. He also explained that if you had fine cuts on your hands or cracking from dryness the powder worked as a moisturizer and had antiseptic qualities to prevent infection. He then mentioned the leaves of the aspen are effective in relieving the itch from bug stings, and that the inner bark from the aspen contains compounds similar to the ones used in Aspirin. The Cree would boil the inner bark of the quaking aspen tree into a tea (similar to willow-bark tea) that was used for a myriad of aliments because of it’s anti-inflammatory, calming and healing properties.
David Finch opened my eyes and shone a different light on the humble “quiver leaf” tree. I no longer viewed them as the ban of my existence while riding in the mountains, but realized that they are very hardy and useful. A true symbol of the West.
I have many times since utilized the knowledge of aspen bark to make an impromptu sunscreen when I realized I’d forgotten to “butter up”. Or, if my hands were chapped from washing dishes in camp, I’d slide my hands down the trunk of an aspen while I was riding by and rub the powder deep into the cracks and somehow they would feel better.
I was avenged of my knee-knocking, trunk-thwacking time on Gilligan. A few rides after that ride, wrangler Mark was riding a spooky horse named Purdy (though he wasn’t too pretty of a horse, rather mean looking, I used to think). That surly bay horse suddenly bolted from our trail-riding line on the steep side of a hill. Mark, is a big guy, well over six-feet and broad, and he couldn’t pull that fool run-away horse in. Purdy’s head was tucked into his chest and he was just barreling down the steep mountain side full-steam into a thick, tight stand of aspens. I could hear snapping and popping and yelling and swearing the whole way as horse and rider slammed through the trees making their own path where there was none. I need to apologize to Mark, that I felt somewhat avenged for being stuck on Gilligan after that episode!
Here’s some unique or useful Tips and Tricks for Aspens I collected off the web:
Gardening Tip:Plant your potatoes when the leaves appear on aspen trees.
Sunscreen Tip: Plants exposed above the snow need to protect themselves from the harsh conditions of winter. Touch the south-facing side of the trunk of a trembling aspen. The white powder on your hand is bloom. Bloom acts like sunscreen lotion. In late winter and early spring, when the side exposed to the sun may be well above freezing, the shady side is still frozen. The tree must be able to reflect the sun’s rays to remain dormant until spring.
Baking Powder Trick: A crude form of baking powder can be made in the bush. If you can find a Quaking Aspen tree cut a few branches off of the tree and burn them. The ash from the fire will be a fine white powder. This can be substituted for baking powder. Baking powder can be used to make bannock which is simple bread. The Quaking Aspen can be identified by a white powder that forms on the outer bark.
Medicinal Tip: The buds are slightly sticky and can be made into tea or salve for internal or external use. Boil the buds in olive oil or lard to make a soothing salve which may be used for colds, coughs, and irritated nostrils.
Hunting Trick: The Shuswap people boiled Aspen branches in water and made a cleanser for guns, traps, and buckskins. Hunters would also wash themselves in this solution to remove human odour. The powder was used as a deodorant.
Weather Tip: Predict storms when aspen leaves quiver in no perceptible wind.
Cosmetic Tip: Aspen bark extract appears to be an excellent alternative to traditional preservatives that are now under suspicion, such as formaldehyde donors, isothiazolones, and parabens. Aspen bark extract has shown to effectively inhibit the growth of mold, yeast, e coli, S aureus, subtilis, and P aeruginosa. Although aspen bark extract probably won’t ward off microorganisms in watery lotions and creams, it shows enormous promise for the future of natural preservative systems.
Something to Try when Your Bored:The white powder found on the outside of the tree contains a good quantity of naturally occurring yeast. A sourdough bread mix kicked off with this powder will add some leavening and a great flavor to bread, pancakes, and other baked goods. Try scraping off a few teaspoonfuls, and add it to a soupy mix of flour and water. Throw in a tablespoon of sugar for good measure and wait a few days, stirring each day. The mix should begin to foam and smell “yeasty.” Once this has occurred, add a portion of the mix to a bread dough recipe, replacing what you remove to perpetuate the starter. Check out a good cookbook for specific recipes for making sourdough bread.