Fiery red, vivid orange, warm amber and, amid the vibrant shades, still lush bursts of evergreen – they are the colours that spell the shifting seasons.

But while the changing leaves usher in autumn in all its colourful glory, one shade – the golden yellow of the aspen tree – is missing.

Once a common feature of the autumn landscape, the sight of its shimmering gold leaves in their final tremble before winter’s chill has for years been largely confined to a handful of remote and often hard to reach spots.

While the whispering noise the aspen’s leaves make as they shiver in the breeze has become the stuff of old tales and folklore; with just few thick stands of aspen to be found, only a lucky few will have experienced their soothing rustling sound.

Having been whittled away due to centuries of deforestation, muirburn, drainage and intensive grazing, hopes are now high that thanks to clones, genetic research and a lot of legwork, autumn’s crowning glory may be on its way back.

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“It’s a stunning and very quirky, different tree,” says Peter Livingstone of social enterprise Eadha – Gaelic for ‘aspen’ – which has so far helped to plant more than one million aspen trees across the country.

“Aspen is a key species – it ticks a lot of boxes,” he adds. “It is very good at cleaning post-industrial sites and can deplete high levels of soil contamination and poor ground conditions.

“It supports a lot of species, some of which are found exclusively on aspen, and its timber has a lot of potential uses.

“In autumn, its colour is very distinctive, and it produces millions of seeds given the chance.”

Aspen trees, however, rarely flower of their own accord – an event that tends to rely on the tree being put under stress. And because aspen grow as either male or female and now tend to grow as single trees, cross-pollination is hindered.

The species does produce suckers which creep underground and emerge as new ‘clone’ trees nearby, however they provide particularly tasty nibbles for deer and sheep, meaning they are often lost before they have a chance to thrive.

As a result, the main way to propagate new aspens has involved taking cuttings from existing trees and nurturing them in nurseries – both labour-intensive and time-consuming.

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Peter launched Eadha in 2011 with the hope of collecting cuttings of as many surviving trees as possible to use to produce clones.

At the time he feared there might be just 900 aspen left in the whole of Scotland; an initial survey in Renfrewshire revealed just eight, and another spanning Ayrshire, Galloway and Arran counted only 80.

There followed a two year back-breaking labour of love, when Peter and colleagues took cuttings from each one, trekking to remote spots in the depths of winter while the trees were dormant.

“I felt like one of the old plant collectors from Victorian times, up a single-track road, up a hill looking for these trees and taking a cutting,” he says.

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The initial collection, however, produced tens of thousands of new clone trees.

“Two years ago, we celebrated the one millionth aspen tree being planted – from that 80 surviving aspen, we put one million back into the landscape,” he adds.

Focus now has turned to searching for ‘super aspen’ with an extra chromosome which means they grow faster and stronger, making them potentially attractive as a commercial forestry species.

So far, ten have been identified within Eadha’s National Clone Collection at its nursery near Bishopton, which now holds   350 cuttings from trees across Scotland and parts of the north of England.

Meanwhile, other research is looking into genetic differences with potential benefits for other species.

“There are mosses, lichens, fungi, flies and moths that are found exclusively on aspen,” says Peter. “Different clones have different bark textures; some support species such as rare aspen hoverfly and aspen bristle-moss.

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“It’s important to preserve them or that could be lost forever.”

Others are also involved in trying to boost numbers of aspen: rewilding specialists Mossy Earth have been planting aspen alongside riverbanks where they can provide shade and cover for fish.

Aspen is favoured by beaver, which by chewing at the tree create the stresses required for it to naturally seed – potentially boosting numbers further.

While at conservation charity Trees for Life’s Dundreggan tree nursery in Glen Moriston near Loch Ness, horticulturists are working on perfecting a method of encouraging the aspen to flower under controlled conditions, then hand pollinating female catkins with pollen collected from male trees.

The method has produced varying quantities of seed over the past three years, raising hopes that eventually large numbers of pollinated catkins will ripen and produce seeds and eventually saplings to be planted as part of the charity’s restoration of the Caledonian Forest.

The plight of aspen and the push for its revival is part of a new campaign by rewilding group Scotland: The Big Picture. Painting Scotland Yellow highlights importance of aspen, from its autumn colours to the vital role it plays in supporting other species.

Executive Director Peter Cairns says: “After the last Ice Age, aspen was one of the first trees to colonise.

“But over the years burning, grazing, felling and draining has resulted in Scotland being one of the least wooded countries in the whole of Europe, and aspen has suffered more than most species.

“Aspen is the most palatable tree species to herbivores - it’s like chocolate is to us - and most aspen stands tend to exist in areas where heavy grazing, predominately by sheep and deer, has been restricted.

“There are many interesting elements to aspen, both ecologically and culturally, which have disappeared off the radar as tree has become more scarce.

“Our campaign wants to shine a light on what it does: it’s a beautiful tree, there are cultural stories attached to it, and in autumn it lights up the landscape.”

Aspen facts

  • Once commonplace, aspen features in folklore and mythology.
  • A crown of aspen leaves was said to give its wearer power to visit and return safely from the Underworld.
  • Aspen crowns have been found in ancient burial mounds, possibly to allow the spirits of the deceased to be reborn.
  • In Greek, Aspis – the name for aspen – means ‘shield’, one of the common uses for its wood.
  • In Celtic mythology, the aspen leaves shivering in the breeze and the gentle rustling sound was said to be the tree communicating between this world and the next.
  • The wood of the aspen tree is said to have been used for Christ’s crucifix – its trembling leaves were said to be a sign of its shame.
  • While Highlanders considered aspen a magical tree – placing a leaf under the tongue was said to make the bearer more eloquent, and it was taboo to use it for fishing, agriculture or housebuilding.