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Among the world’s strangest places, is a grove of aspen trees that are so twisted and gnarled, that many locals attribute them to ghosts, UFOs and aliens. Near the quiet town of Alticane, in north-central Saskatchewan, lies a grove of gnarled trees surrounded by perfectly normal ones.
The crooked trees are so knotted and bent, they look eerily like the curled legs of dead, overturned spiders. Nobody has ever been able to fully explain the abnormality, but theories range from contaminated soil, to genetic mutation of aspen trees, and the impact of meteorites. A local farmer even claims to have seen aliens urinating in the area before the trees began sprouting in the 1940s, and Alticane is located in an area well known for UFO sightings.
Perhaps that explains why so many visitors to the grove feel a strange presence, almost a supernatural force that causes dizziness as they stroll along the wooden boardwalk. Despite a lack of fencing, cattle will not go near the grove, and superstitious people won’t go near it during a full moon.
Well, we always knew there was more to Saskatchewan than grain elevators and waving wheat. For one thing… there’s the crooked trees!
The trees, growing on a farm in The Thickwood Hills, northwest of Saskatoon, has become a hot spot for fans of the strange and unusual.
Essentially, the crooked trees are a grove of genetically mutated aspens, but the local folklore surrounding the origins of these trees is what makes them truly wondrous. For instance - one story posits the trees are a result of “alien urine.” This wonder offers us a chance to shed that “boring Canadian” image and go for something a little bit more… peculiar.
From the earliest times forests have been a place where those who seek knowledge and wisdom venture. This idea has become imbedded into our collective psyche through religion, myths, and stories. Whether it be “The Tree of Enlightenment” from Buddhism, or when Jesus of Nazareth ventured into the wilderness to confront good and evil. In Norse mythology, axis mundi or the center of the world was Yggdrasil or the “World Tree”. In literature, Henry David Thoreau decided material wealth does nothing to augment happiness and withdrew to Walden - a cabin in the forest - to experience the divine through nature. This idea of nature imparting wisdom to those who choose to see was never more succinctly stated when the Cherokee Indian, Chief Sequoia said, “To be one with the trees is to know Life within your own spirit.”
They have been studied by researchers at the University of Saskatchewan and at the University of Manitoba. Rick Sawatzky from the University of Saskatchewan grew trees at the university from cuttings taken from the twisted trees. They grew in the same twisted formation at the university as they had in their natural setting, showing that the mutation was due to the characteristics of the plant, not the soil or location.
Dr. Bill Remphrey from the University of Manitoba also took cuttings from the grove and grew and studied them in Manitoba. The research became the M.Sc. thesis topic for graduate student Ashley Linden. His thesis, published in 2006, studied the plant characteristics that led to the unusual bending and twisting of the trees.
Because of the importance of the bending in creating the crooked form, we have initiated studies to try and determine what causes the bending.
There is some evidence that lack of strength of the shoots at critical times during the growing season may be involved.
The MSc Thesis of a graduate student, Ashley Linden looked at anatomical differences of the stems on the upper and lower sides of the bend. He has noticed that phloem fibres on the upper side do not develop fully compared to the lower side and compared to all locations around wild type trees. He has also conducted strength experiments using weights and preliminary results suggest that strength may be involved.
An aspen clone in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah is composed of 47,000 stems of genetically identical aspen trees (Populus tremuloides), with a total weight of 6 million kilograms (6,500 tons). Since the aspen is a dioecious species (with separate male and female individuals in the population), this monstrous clone is the same sex, in this case all males. The clone has developed asexually by suckering, where new adventitious stems arise from a gigantic spreading root system. Suckering is a common method of asexual reproduction in the willow family