Unusual Aspen Breakage in Mountain Gardens

Comments on the storm of 28-29 December 2010

This storm came into Truckee and Tahoe with a cold front.  It then turned very wet and gradually piled up as the temperatures dropped.  I have seen more broken tops in quaking aspen (Populis tremuloides) than ever before (several dozen while driving in town).  There seems to be more damage at lower elevations, probably because it did not rain at the higher elevations so the snow was not as sticky.  Aspen has a tendency to grow rather quickly when we water and feed it but it is usually fairly flexible.  The trees that broke did not have unusually rapid growth, they were average, healthy trees.  I am guessing that we will see lots of evidence of breakage in wild local aspen as well.  We regularly see very disfigured and broken aspen in the canyons of the southern Sierra where we collect seeds of Villager Nursery's favorite, and indestructible, western river birch (Betula occidentalis var fontinalis). 

I had been waiting to prune my broken Aspen until a little later.  Any time after mid March should be fine (earlier and there will likely be drying and die-back from the cut). Cut just above, and sloping away from, the next substantial lateral branch, below the break,  that can assume the role of leader.  Do not cut to a small branch if there is any choice.  By large I mean 1/2 - 2/3+ the diameter of the main trunk.  As long as you are at it, go ahead and prune any competing leaders back to large laterals as well, it's called "subordination"of potential competitors. If pruned properly, the tree should "recapitulate" a new leader.  

Aspen do best with one strong trunk and one stout and dominant leader.  The narrow, pyramidal form that young deciduous trees and most coniferous evergreens exhibit is called "excurrent growth". I find pruning for excurrent growth is relatively simple to visualize and practice.   Our first class of spring is usually, "Resurrection" after the ravages of winter.

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2 comments (Add your own)

1. Wendy wrote:
Our aspen trees broke from the weight of the heavy snow this winter. They broke below the branches. Is there a way to get them to grow back or do we need to have them cut all the way down? We live in Incline Village at 7500 ft elevation.

Mon, April 17, 2017 @ 4:17 PM

2. Eric Charles Larusson wrote:
Most likely, broken aspen will send up ramets (“suckers”) from the shallow roots surrounding the trees. This was an absurdly damaging winter in ever native and planted landscape (I was looking at all the broken aspen on HWY 267 just today). You could try just cutting the trees cleanly below the breaks but sprouts that emerge from the base will be weakly attached and you’d be better-off long-term if they come up from the roots. There is an old saying that if you want an aspen grove plant one aspen, grow it for 3 years and then cut it down. If they’ve been in a few years, there is a ton of stored energy and a desire to survive in the root system. An abundance of sprouts is the USUAL response. Rain to snow to more snow to deep freeze to rain to snow to more snow to deep freeze to rain to snow to more snow to deep freeze to rain to snow to more snow to deep freeze to rain to snow to deep freeze equated to HUGE frozen mass in our trees that would not melt, break-up or fall-out and so the trees eventually failed. No one I know has ever seen this much destruction. You are not alone. Sorry for your losses.

Tue, April 18, 2017 @ 4:53 PM

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Villager Nursery, Inc
10678 Donner Pass Road, Truckee, CA 96161-4834
Central Truckee, exit 186 off I-80
(530) 587-0771
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Founded 1975, Incorporated 1990

California Nursery License 1975
No. C 3976.001, Co.29CA
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ISA Certified Arborist: Eric Larusson
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