The Crooked Bush of Saskatchewan – An Intriguing Botanical Anomaly

Saskatchewan’s Crooked Bush, a small grove of aspen trees that grew in a very unusual way, is a botanical oddity that has fascinated both tourists and scientists for years.

Aspen trees don’t usually grow crooked. Like most other threes, they grow straight up, towards the sun, but not the specimens that make up the Crooked Bush. Located near Hafford, in Canada’s Saskatchewan province, this anomaly is the world’s only known crooked aspen tree grove. The strange appearance of the trees was first observed in the 1940s and it has since attracted thousands of tourists to this place. The advent of the internet only made the Crooked Bush more popular and there is now even a wooden walkway that visitors can use to avoid stepping on new growth.

Photo: Dean Jarvey/Flickr

The gnarled appearance of the Crooked Bush has inspired numerous stories and local legends over the years. The previous owner of the land it is located on claimed that his cows wouldn’t go near it, other locals connected its unusual growth pattern to alien activity, and some even mentioned giant rabbits that once lived among the trees, slurping their sap and causing them to grow like this.

“A joke goes around about a lawyer who was buried here, so it became the crooked trees,” said Rick Simmonds, the owner of the land Crooked Bush grows on.

Even though Crooked Bush is technically private property, Simmonds allows visitors onto his land, even though their numbers have grown significantly lately.

“Quite often when we’re working the land around here, you’ll see five or six vehicles out here and sometimes bus loads of seniors,” the farmer said, adding some people come from as far away as Australia just to see the botanical anomaly.

So why does Crooked Bush grow the way it does? The above-mentioned theories make for nice stories, but there has to be a scientific explanation for it, right? Well, in this case, at least, the answer is ‘yes’, and it has to do with a peculiarity of aspen trees.

Aspen tree groves are often genetic clones of just one specimen, connected through an underground root system, and the Crooked Bush is no different. Only in this particular case, the original aspen tree specimen suffered a genetic mutation that caused it to grow downward and sideways rather than upwards. Since the rest of the aspen trees are essentially clones of that same tree, they all have the same genetic code, so they grow the same way.

“The gene controlling this characteristic causes the tree – the new growth – to grow downward instead of upward. It’s part of the plant. It’s part of the genome,” Rick Sawatzky, a horticulture technician at the University of Saskatchewan, said.

How aspen trees usually grow

“What a person has to understand is it’s almost a lethal gene because if it’s in with competition from other aspens, the other aspens get all the sunlight and this poor little thing can’t grow up – or grows up very poorly, gets shaded out and dies,” Sawatzky added.

The only reason why the Crooked Bush of Saskatchewan has survived for so long is that it never had to compete for sunlight with other nearby trees.