By Martin Baguley
The year is circa 30AD. The place: somewhere near Jerusalem. Two men are looking up at a tall poplar tree they have selected to fell and use to make into a cross to crucify a trouble-making Jew. As their axe cuts into the trunk they talk, and the tree hears its fate. Its leaves begin to quiver in horror – which is why the leaves of our native aspen tree quiver to this day.
So goes the legend. In fact, the reason why the dainty leaves of Populus tremula ‘quiver’ is more prosaic. The leaf stalks are long and laterally flattened, so the leaves shake and make a distinctive rustling, whispering sound in the slightest of breezes – hence the expression ‘to tremble like a leaf’.
Countless generations of our ancestors believed that the wind was the voice of a messenger of the gods. The ‘voice’ could be interpreted from the sounds made as the wind moved the branches and leaves of trees. As aspen leaves quiver and rustle, our ancestors must have thought that there was much they could learn from the tree. The belief would have influenced countless people’s lives throughout history.
Populus tremula – ‘Populus’ from the Latin for tree of the people: ‘tremula’ you guessed – is not common in Ireland but worth looking for in Glencee in County Wicklow as the name in Irish, Gleann Crithigh, means Valley of the Aspen.
Although found throughout Britain it is more common in the north of Scotland. It has some colourful local names: the shiver-tree, old wives’ tongue (no prizes for guessing why), trembling poplar, shaking asp and pipple. The word creatbach in its Irish name (Crann creatbach) means shakey.
Although reproducing conventionally by seed – there are both male and female trees – in many areas the tree reproduces mainly from suckers (called ramets) which are produced by old roots. As the tree has an extensive root system suckers can appear many metres away from the parent, so an aspen wood may be composed of trees all joined together underground by a vast interconnected root system.