Winding through fog and sprinkling raindrops toward the summit of Mount Lemmon earlier this fall, I kept lookout to either side of the Catalina Highway for autumn foliage; sparse saguaros blended with dark junipers that mingled in turn with ponderosa and oak as we gained elevation, ascending from the desert toward an alpine eco-zone.
The first smatterings of autumnal yellow appeared in Middle Bear canyon, but we struck gold at the apex of the summit road past the ski lift, arriving at the end of the lane in a glade of shimmering aspen trees.
The quaking aspen are named for the way the trees tremble and quake when the wind blows. Standing at 50 feet or taller, the silver-white trunks glimmer in slanted sunlight amidst the yellowing leaves. Black scars like eyelets adorn the white skin of the trees, remnants where the long, thin branches have fallen away.
Aspen trees reproduce by seeds and spread when the roots of one tree sprout additional trees, called root clones. The intermingled roots of aspen trees can form an entire grove that is one organism, a single root colony comprised of many skyward-reaching trees.
I think the aspen trees are especially representative of the old adage “expect the unexpected.” Iconic and beautiful, I never would have guessed they are also edible.
The bark of aspen trees was a common dietary supplement for Native Americans, especially the Algonquin Indians of the Adirondack Mountains, who were known to eat the bark from many trees.
If you decide to hail to ancient native tradition and go bark-foraging one day, I suggest seeking out discrete trees away from roads and trails, so as not to ruin the view for others looking to experience the scenery with unblemished trees.
The inner bark layer, called the cambium, is the most nutritious and the most tender, although still starchy. After stripping away the outer bark, there are several ways you can go about consuming the cambium:
It can be eaten raw, though thorough chewing is recommended. Thin strips of bark can be boiled into a rustic sort of pasta, topped with a sauce of your choice or added to stew. The bark can be ground into dry flour and used in bread, breakfast cereals, or added to soups to give extra thickness to broth.
The flowering spikes of aspen trees, called catkins, emerge upon the boughs in early springtime. These are also edible, and served to enrich native peoples’ daily fare.
None of the flowers were blooming this time of year, and Jason and I neglected to take our knives to the tree trunks on this occasion.
We watched as a bitter wind ripped over the mountain’s summit, scattering heart-shaped yellow aspen leaves to the four corners, then headed back down the meandering road to enrich our own diets with something a little more modern.