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Aspen grove in early Spring

Here’s a conversation I overheard at a gardening shop recently, between a customer and one of the clerks:

Customer: I’m looking for something to plant in my back yard.
Clerk: Okay, what sort of plant are you looking for?
Customer: Something hardy that will grow tall. I want a tall plant.
Clerk: Like a tree?
Customer: Trees aren’t plants.
Clerk: …
Customer: They’re too tall to be plants. And they have bark.

This is an error in taxonomy — the discipline of naming, defining and classifying groups of biological organisms on the basis of shared characteristics. It was Aristotle who first decided to systematically classify…well, just about everything. His very first step was to divide all living things into plants or animals. From that point on, things got complicated.

This aspen grove is almost certainly a plant. Yes, plant — not plants. A single plant. One of the many cool things about aspens is they generally grow in clonal colonies. A single seedling sends out root suckers, some of which grow secondary stems. What looks like a lot of aspen trees is usually a single root system with multiple stems. Those individual stem/trees might live anywhere from 40-150 years, but the root system can keep producing new stems for thousands of years.  There’s an aspen grove in Utah that’s at least eighty thousand years old. Oh, and they’re tall. A hundred to a hundred and thirty feet. Pretty tall for a plant.

Somebody needs to introduce that customer at the gardening shop to Aristotle.

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