Aspen Trees

What is Special About the Aspen Tree?

The aspen tree is by far my favorite tree found in nature. Each fall thousands of tourists and leaf peepers flock to the Colorado mountains and the National Forest to witness one of the most spectacular events nature can provide - what I like to call "The Big Aspen Change." These trees with white trunks are emblematic of the Colorado lifestyle and are a symbol of life in the Centennial State. In the spring, aspen seeds form like small balls of cotton and float through the air whimsically. In fall, the green leaves of the quaking aspen tree (Populus tremuloides) turn various vibrant colors ranging from gold, yellow, orange, and red during the months of September and October and have the ability to completely transform the landscape from a monotone green forest into one teeming with variety and complexity. Simply put, aspen trees are glorious in fall.

Aspen trees float above a bank of fog before a snow-capped Colorado mountain in fall.
Glorious aspens float above a bank of fog and before a snow-capped Colorado mountainside in fall near Crested Butte. Prints are available.

One of the things that makes the aspen species special is how they grow. While aspens can reproduce via seeds, they most successfully reproduce through their root sprouts. Root sprouting through aspen shoots allows aspens to create a genetically identical version of itself called a clone. Fascinatingly, aspen clones contain identical characteristics and share the same root structure. Spending time in the field analyzing the composition of nearby trees can help you determine whether any two given trees are a clone based on the shape of their leaves, the size of their bark, what the bark looks like, the tree profile, and how their branches are shaped. You may even get lucky and find a large cluster of aspen trees to joyfully examine. Lastly, a singular aspen grove known as Pando is believed to be the largest single living organism on Earth, containing over 47,000 trunks all connected through one system of roots.

Is it an Aspen Tree or Birch Tree?

How Can You Tell the Difference Between Birch and Aspen Trees?

While aspen and birch trees do look very similar, there are some key differences that can help you differentiate between birch trees versus aspen trees.

Crisscrossing aspen trees in fall near Telluride, Colorado.
Crisscrossing aspen trees shine brightly after a hailstorm, showing off their white bark near Telluride, Colorado in fall.f the awesome trunk structures of these amazing trees near Telluride, Colorado. Prints are available.

Aspen Leaves versus Birch Leaves

Perhaps the easiest way to tell the difference between an aspen tree and a birch tree is to look at the leaves of the tree. Aspen leaves are typically heart shaped while birch leaves have an oval shape with a tapering tip that resembles the letter "V." Birch leaves are typically longer and have a serrated edge. While aspen leaves also have a serrated edge, it is much finer of a sawtooth pattern than the birch leaf. Fallen aspen leaves are among some of my favorite photography subjects to spend time with as a photographer.

Aspen Bark versus Birch Bark

Another way to differentiate between the birch tree and the aspen tree is to analyze the bark of the tree. Both aspen trees and birch trees have a distinct white bark; however, aspen tree bark varies in shade considerably, ranging from a slight green tint to a pale yellow shade. It's quite more uncommon to find aspens with bark that is pure white, whereas birch trees are almost always solid white when healthy. Second, the quality of the bark of the tree is also a great way to tell the difference. Aspen tree bark is often marked with black horizontal scars and the tell-tale black knots that resemble eyes. Birch bark on the other hand does not contain the eye-like scars that are so prevalent in aspen trees. Lastly, birch tree bark can easily peel off of the tree almost like paper whereas aspen tree bark does not peel.

Six white aspen trunks and their black knots near Telluride, Colorado.
Six white aspen trunks show off the texture of their bark, including black knots that resemble eyes from a forest near Telluride, Colorado in Fall. Prints Available.

Why Are Aspen Trees Called Quaking Aspens?

Species "Aspen Populus Tremuloides"

Quaking aspen trees get their name from their Latin origin, Populus Tremuloides, which means "trembling poplar." This is because even the slightest breeze causes the flat leaves of the tree to flutter, tremble, or quake, which creates a sound like no other. Indeed, the sound of quaking aspen always fills me with nostalgia because of how identifiable and pleasing the sound is. What causes this sound is the unique structure of the aspen leaf. The stalk of the aspen leaf is flat, which allows it to act like a well-designed pivot on which the leaves easily and quickly move, even in response to the slightest of breezes.

The leaves of quaking aspen trees flutter in the breeze on a quiet mountain road that sleepily winds through the mountainside near Dolores, Colorado in fall.
The leaves of quaking aspen trees flutter in the breeze on a quiet mountain road that sleepily winds through the mountainside near Dolores, Colorado in fall. Prints available.

Are Aspens Only in Colorado?

As a 5th generation native of Colorado that didn't travel much as a child, I often found myself thinking that aspen trees were unique to Colorado. Aspen fall colors have symbolized so many things my entire life, including the end of summer, the beginning of school, and the arrival of colder weather. Fortunately for those not living in Colorado, it is not true that aspen trees are only in Colorado. Aspen trees also grow across large swaths of North America, most notably in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and the Eastern California Sierra. Aspen can also be found in large quantities throughout Canada, Alaska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, New York and Maine. It is my opinion though that aspen trees and Colorado mountains make for the most magical viewing combination, which is why I have dedicated countless years of my life photographing them together. There's nothing more magical than a perfectly formed aspen stand.

A hillside filled with glorious yellow and gold aspen stands in Colorado showcasing 14er Capitol Peak dressed in white after an early snowstorm.
A hillside filled with glorious yellow and gold aspen stands in Colorado showcasing mountains dressed in white after an early snowstorm. Prints available.

What is Aspen Bark Used For?

Aspen bark has always been one of my favorite photography subjects. One notable fall, I encountered fresh bear claws on aspen bark while on a hike which caused me to wonder how aspen bark has been used by those that came before us. Aspen bark has been used by Native American tribes for centuries for a variety of purposes. Most interestingly, Native Americans carved messages and arbor glyphs into aspen tree bark as a means of communication, to keep records of events, establish symbols for spiritual healing, and to write down prayers or to mark a burial site.

The bark of aspens has historically been used by the Salishan People of Canada to treat stomach aches, tuberculosis, and scrofula sores and was also used as a contraceptive. In British Columbia, the Carrier People chewed the bark of aspens and applied it to open wounds in order to slow bleeding and used the warm ashes of the aspen bark as a hot compress to treat pain and swelling. Several tribes used the bark as a source of food for themselves and their horses in the winter. Why would so many tribes use the bark as a medicinal treatment? Simply put, aspen bark is rich in a substance called “salicin,” which is chemically similar to the main ingredient of Aspirin. Even though salicin obtained from tree bark has been used for centuries as a treatment for pain, it is quite irritating to the stomach. In 1898, Felix Hoffmann, a chemist with the Bayer company, found an alternative in synthesized acetylsalicylic acid which was a huge improvement over tree bark.

Today, aspen bark and wood are used for all sorts of things such as playground equipment, chopsticks, and more. The shredded aspen wood makes for great packaging material or bedding for livestock. Aspen bark extract is also used as a preservative in skin care products because the naturally occurring salicin helps to sooth the skin.

A photograph of a closely-knit stand of aspens reveals the beautiful texture of the bark illuminated by soft afternoon light.
A photograph of a closely-knit stand of aspens reveals the beautiful texture of the bark illuminated by soft afternoon light. Prints available.

What Causes Aspen Leaves to Change to Produce Fall Colors?

If you are at all interested in biology and natural processes, perhaps one of the most incredible ways to learn about them is through your curiosity of nature. I remember vividly my 9th grade biology class where I learned for the first time how and why aspen leaves changed color. We were on a field trip to a local park in autumn, which contained lots and lots of aspen populus tremuloides in varying states of fall color change. This is where our biology teacher taught us the magic of photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the magical chemical process that literally sustains life on Earth. During photosynthesis, trees take in carbon dioxide from the air and water from soil. Inside the cell of the tree, the water is oxidized while the carbon dioxide is reduced. This transforms the water into oxygen and the carbon dioxide into glucose. The tree then releases the oxygen back into the air, and stores energy within the glucose molecules. This food-making process takes place in millions of leaf cells which contain a pigment known as chlorophyll, which is green. This green pigment is why leaves are so green - they are full of chlorophyll! In addition to the green chlorophyll, aspen leaves also contain some yellow, orange, and red carotenoids. In summer months, the small amounts of yellow, orange, and red carotenoid color is totally hidden by the huge amounts of green chlorophyll; however, in the fall, temperatures drop which signals the food factories in trees to shut down for the winter. When this happens, the green chlorophyll breaks down and fades away, letting the vibrant yellow, orange, and red carotenoids to shine through. This creates a dazzling display of color as the chlorophyll fades, making large aspen forests some of the most beautiful sights to behold.

A single vibrant aspen leaf on a wet wood log in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado demonstrates the magical process of photosynthesis and the fading color of chlorophyll.
A single vibrant aspen leaf on a wet wood log in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado demonstrates the magical process of photosynthesis and the fading color of chlorophyll. Prints available.

Why Are Aspen Trees Dying in the National Forest of Colorado?

Scientists, ecologists, and forestry experts are all alarmed at the sudden aspen decline that is occurring in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. Aerial surveys of Colorado aspen groves since 2004 have shown that over 150,000 acres of Colorado aspen tree are dead or in major distress. Indeed, up to 15% of Colorado's aspen groves are showing major declines, with some forests showcasing sickly trees for miles and miles on end. Sudden aspen decline is occurring most extensively in hot and dry areas facing south. These areas are more prone to drought thanks to ongoing climate change impacting forest health in the West. Drought and heat impact aspen trees by weakening them and making them more vulnerable to disease and insects. During drought, aspens instinctively seal tiny openings in their leaves, a survival tactic they employ to reduce water loss. There is a cost to this closing though -it quells the uptake of carbon dioxide, which is needed for photosynthesis. Additionally, this causes aspens to reduce how much sunlight they can convert into sugar, which potentially causes the aspens to absorb sugar from their own root system, eventually killing the roots and preventing the genesis of aspen seedlings. This is one of the reasons I have dedicated so much of my photography career to photographing aspen trees and to capturing aspen tree photos and have decided to donate 10% of all aspen tree photo sales to the National Forest Foundation.

Some stands of aspen trees in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado are suffering from sudden aspen decline.
Some stands of aspen trees in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado are suffering from sudden aspen decline. Prints Available.

Where Can I Buy Photo Prints of Aspen Trees?

While there are lots of photographers out there producing some incredible work in the Colorado aspen forest, I pride myself on creating some of the most unique and visually stunning Colorado fall photography prints that you can find anywhere. I have dedicated several weeks a year to photographing fall aspen trees in Colorado and have found great joy and purpose in mastering my craft as a photographer to ensure that my photos of aspen trees can be printed as beautiful large wall art. I have partnered with the world's most qualified and skilled printers and have spent a lot of time and money in discovering the perfect fine art print mediums on which my aspen tree prints are made. Aspen trees provide a pleasing color contrast to almost any room and offer the viewer a way to escape into nature through my artwork. If you are looking for someone to create a visual masterpiece using photographs of aspens, then you have come to the right place. Whether you are looking for small prints or large wall art, I have something for everyone in my aspen tree photography gallery.

A panorama featuring sunset and Colorado mountains with aspen trees in fall
A unique and captivating panorama featuring sunset clouds over incredible Colorado mountains with aspen trees in fall. Prints available.

Aspen Tree Photography

Aspen trees are a wonder of nature and hold a special place in my heart as a lover of nature. Growing up in Colorado, I long for spending time in aspen forests in autumn, watching the aspen leaves fall to the forest floor and finding ways to capture this magic through my photography. Aspen trees are also a wonderful marvel of mother nature – they often share the same root structure and the grove near Crested Butte, Colorado is widely considered to be the second largest living organism on Earth. One of my favorite things to do as a photographer is to lay under a quaking aspen tree and listen to the breeze blow through its leaves – it is quite a magical experience! I hope my photographs of aspen trees and forests encapsulate this magical experience so you too can have a bit of that magic in your home. My photographs of aspen trees are some of the most unique you will find – I pride myself in seeking out compositions and scenes that speak to me and that are original.

Aspen tree photos can transform your space and make it feel like you are a part of nature – something we all need more of in our lives. The yellow, red, green, and gold leaves help to create a pleasing color palette and can combine well with almost any interior décor – making my fine art prints and photos of aspen trees a great choice for any space.

Whether you prefer photos portraying grand scenic images of mountains with a lone glorious aspen tree, or if you like gazing into a photograph featuring a forest filled with aspen trees, a Matt Payne aspen tree print will provide you with everything you have been looking for to transform your space and display a unique work of art proudly.

Lone Holdout (2023)
A single aspen tree showcases the last of its color during an early winter storm near Crested Butte, Colorado.

The Magic is in the Aspen Leaf

The aspen tree leaf is quite simply one of the coolest things on Earth. Each leaf is a unique signature that gives us clues into how the tree did over the course of the year, how healthy the forest is, how much precipitation the aspen forest received in the past year, and how vibrant the ecosystem is of any given forest. This is why I am so enamored with the process of making fine art photography prints of the aspen leaf. It's quite fun to see the leaf composition of individual trees that are side-by-side, examining them to understand what might explain the differences in color, shape, and size. The magic of the aspen leaf keeps me coming back year after year to photograph them - they have truly captivated my imagination and kindled my love of nature.

Photographs of the magical aspen leaf
A collection of photographs of the magical aspen leaf. Prints available.