By Mike Groenewold
Many of you have traveled to western states and marveled in the beauty of aspen trees. You might even agree a mountain side view of a green, coniferous forest splashed with aspens in autumn, golden foliage, rivals any landscape scene. However, you might be surprised to know, that aspens may be found in Nebraska. Aspen trees have been in Nebraska since glacial times when the landscape, flora and fauna reflected more northern, colder climates. With the passing of that colder period about 12,000 years ago, the trees and their associate species began to recede from the state. Generally during this warming trend, grasslands advanced while forests declined, leaving isolated pockets of aspen trees. Remnant aspen stands remain in the “Pineridge” of western Nebraska to the Niobrara River Valley in north central Nebraska, south to the “Sandhills” and east to the Elkhorn and Platte River Valleys near Norfolk and Columbus. The number of trees remaining in the isolated stands varies, from a few trees to 50.
So, did I get your attention? Would you like to see aspens on public land? Smith Falls State Park near Valentine has the most easily accessible aspens found anywhere in the state. A short, one quarter mile walk will take you to a stand of 6 trees. Several other small groves remain in remote areas of the Park. The closest grove of trees is located right near the beginning of the boardwalk to Smith Falls, the highest waterfall in the state. Currently an educational exhibit easily identifies the aspens, so you can’t miss them.
The aspens remaining in the Park are a hybrid of big-toothed aspen (Populus angustifolia), an eastern species whose nearest population is n central Iowa, and quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) common throughout the Rocky Mountains. Pollen samples from sandhills lake sediments indicate both aspen species grew in the area immediately following the Ice Age.
The hybrids might have originated during this period.
The short hike to the aspens begins at the Park campground. Planning a float trip on the Niobrara this summer? Don’t miss seeing these two beautiful, landscape features. In the next issue of Landscape Notes, from the Green Team, we will discuss what the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission along with other project partners is doing to help preserve the remaining aspens at Smith Falls State Park and in the Central Niobrara Valley.
Photos courtesy of the National Park Service and Northern Prairies Land Trust.