Benefits of Using Aspen Wood for Furniture
Aspen is one of the most widely distributed trees in North America—they are found from Alaska to Arizona and from Michigan to Maine. Two different species occur in North America: the bigtooth aspen located primarily in the northeastern United States and the Great Lakes Region, and quaking aspen — a western species. The scientific names reflect the leaves appearance. Populus grandidentata (bigtooth aspen) have large teeth around the edges and Populus tremuloides (quaking aspen) have skinny leaf stems that cause them to quiver in the slightest breeze.
Stands of aspen trees are clones—that is they are genetically identical. Trees in these clone groups have a common root system and, through suckering, reproduce new stems. It is very rare that aspen trees reproduce with seeds in the forest due to their small size and competition with other plants. Aspen are shade-intolerant. They require full sunlight to grow and reproduce.
The clones are maintained through what ecologists refer to as “disturbance.” Historically, that disturbance was wild fire. As aspen stands matured shade-tolerant conifers would grow up underneath the aspen. When wild fire swept through the area, killing the trees, it created the perfect environment for aspen to flourish. Because the aspen root system was already established, regeneration could quickly grow in the open sunlight and with no competition from other plants.
Additionally, vegetative reproduction by suckers generally requires a disturbance or dieback that alters the hormonal balance within the tree. Basically, when the parent tree is killed or stressed, reproduction by suckering is stimulated. This stress or dieback was usually the wildfire that also removed the conifer competition.
Ecologists consider aspen a “keystone” species in the West. Generally speaking, the removal of a keystone species would cause a substantial part of the community to change drastically. Wildlife, recreation, wood products—lots depends on it. Millions of dollars are spent each year just from visitors traveling to view the fall colors.
The loss of native aspen groves in areas of the Rocky Mountains is reaching crisis proportions, having declined as much as 50-95 percent in certain areas. As we prevent forest fires, we, ironically, reduce the amount of aspen. Because there are fewer fires the conifers often grow taller than the aspen and shade the aspen out. People want to see the beautiful fall colors, but they are disappearing.
Aspen stands are declining because of a lack of natural disturbance. If we want to keep aspen we can either allow these disturbances to return or we need to mimic the stand-replacing disturbance. However, large stand replacement fires are difficult to control and are generally not favored by the public. In absence of wildfire, harvesting the timber is a viable option. In order to save the aspen we actually need to start cutting to save aspen. Also, by harvesting the trees we provide quality wood with many uses.
Aspen log furniture is one of those uses. Aspen wood is beautiful, lightweight, and straight grained. Because some of the wood we use comes from dead standing timber, insect etchings provide fascinating character.
Aspen is good wood to work with because it is easy to shape and resists splitting. Because the wood is “soft” it typically uses less electric power to saw and shape. Additionally, because most of aspen log furniture is made from round wood or logs, there is less sawing and shaping.
Aspen log furniture is sustainable for both the aspen stands and American society.
About the Authors
Dave Case is President of D. J. Case & Associates and a Certified Wildlife Biologist.
Tim Longwell currently is completing a doctoral degree in forestry at Purdue University in addition to his duties at D. J. Case.
Since 1986 DJ Case has specialized in natural resources communications. Among their honors and awards, the Indiana Wildlife Federation selected them as the Conservation Organization of the Year in 1996.
For more information contact, D. J. Case & Associates, (574)-258-0100 or www.DJCase.com