Thursday, April 24, 2014

How aspen use green ... or do they?

Our aspen are starting to flower but are still leafless.  Doesn’t matter, they can photosynthesize anyway.
New Under the Sun is hosting April’s Berry-Go-Round; the theme is plant color:
“You can talk about your favorite colors, unusual colors, pigment biosynthesis, how plants use color, how humans have painted new colors onto our favorite plants, color patterns, temporal color changes etc.”
This time of year, “plant color” makes me think of the bright flashes that start appearing in the drab brown-and-gray landscapes that have been with us all winter -- yellow sagebrush buttercups and purple pasque flowers and fresh green leaves popping from buds.  But even though Spring technically arrived over a month ago, it’s still late winter here.  There are occasional wildflowers -- a few brave individuals blooming -- but most are waiting. Trees are still leafless.  However, if you walk through aspen, a bit of green might catch your eye.
Quaking aspen, Populus tremuloides.  Notice it’s greener on the south side.
Some aspen trees have green bark.  It’s more obvious in younger ones.  In 1957, L.C. Pearson and D.B. Lawrence were living in Minnesota where green-barked aspen are common.  They looked at cross-sections of bark under a microscope and found that the green color was localized in plastids (compartments within cells).  This was intriguing, as others had suggested it was due to a parasitic fungus.  They realized that these were just regular plastids, not some abnormal growth.
A bright green layer visible through the very thin (0.2 mm) outer layer of bark.
They decided to investigate further.  They periodically collected bark and leaves from the north and south sides of aspen trees, extracted the green pigment, and analyzed it.  Absorption spectra for pigment from both bark and leaves matched that of chlorophyll, used by plants to photosynthesize and convert sunshine to food.  They also were able to show that the green pigment in the bark was photosynthetically active.
Absorption spectra of pigments in aspen dissolved in ether.  Data of August 3.  Chlorophyll a measured at 6600 A [peak on right].  From Pearson and Lawrence 1958; PDF available here.
Chlorophyll levels in bark were highest when leaves were just starting to appear, and then dropped off, suggesting green bark is a way to get a head start on the growing season.  Maybe this is why deciduous aspen can thrive where growing seasons are short ... where most other trees are evergreen conifers.
The bark is paler green in shady situations.
Before you go, let’s clarify one thing.  Contrary to what was suggested in the title, aspen don’t “use” green.  In fact most plants don’t -- they throw it away.  Chlorophyll is green because it reflects green light.  It absorbs red and blue for photosynthesis.  Here’s another spectrograph, this one in color so you can better see what colors plants use -- not green.
“Absorbance spectra of free chlorophyll a (blue) and b (red) in a solvent.”  Source


  1. I really enjoyed this post. I thought at first it was going to be one of those posts where someone says I don' t know what this tree is, but I know it is a tree. And then I read a really detailed and scientific analysis and you pointed out all the differences and similarities between Alders and Birches. Great!
    I have just found your comment on my post on peonies in spam. I am so sorry, I don't know how that happened. I have now retrieved it.

  2. We've noticed in Northern New Mexico that some of our aspen have dark lime green leaves and others are more of a chartreuse (bright yellow green). Anyone know what causes that?

    1. Interesting, I will have to keep an eye out next year. I can't think of any relevant discussions. Is there a difference in tree age? Are they in different clones?
      Thanks for the visit.
      thanks for the visit