When the sun shines brightly and the crooked trees of Hafford are in full and luscious leaf, it takes a robust imagination to feel an otherworldly presence among these disfigured poplars. Many claim that they do, however, and whatever biologists discover about the cause behind the gruesome limbs and branches probably won’t change that. Biologists have long suspected a genetic mutation as the unseen hand forcing the poplar trunks and branches into unnatural contortion but that has not quieted speculation about a hellish influence in the little forest.
In 1999, when the crooked trees last appeared in Prairies North, professor Bill Remphrey was in the early phases of research into the mutant poplars. He was trying to understand the architecture and development of the trees in very broad terms and even transplanted some of the saplings to his research site at the University of Manitoba. As he watched the trees grow, and replicate the same disfigurements of the parent grove at Hafford, he decided to build a more exact model of their growth pattern and final shape. A 3D digitizer allowed Remphrey and graduate student Ashley Linden to create three-dimensional models of the trees in the research plot as they grew.
“Ashley would go out two to three times a week with the digitizer to follow the progress of the shoots,” says Remphrey. “It would show when they would bend and where they would bend. Then we took all that data and developed a model of what happened over the season.
“We hypothesized that for some genetic reasons the branches don’t have the strength to hold themselves up. Once the branch bends over the tip tries to grow up again and you get the “s” curve. When the branch bends over it also sets off a chain of other phenomenon.”
One of those further phenomena is that some of the branches blacken and die off. This has added greatly to the various appellations the grove has been given such as “haunted” or “enchanted” forest. In his research, Linden discovered differences between the Hafford trees and normal poplars at the cellular level. “There is always the possibility,” says Remphrey, “that the cell differences are actually pushing the stems over. It could even be a combination of the two—the fact that the stem can’t support itself and that the cells are pushing the branch on one side. At this point we don’t know.”
He is convinced that the Grimmsian trunks are the result of a single mutated gene. “The original clone is a male and in the lab we crossed it with regular poplars and caught some seed. When we planted them they grew up normal. So it seems likely that the single recessive gene is overwhelmed by normal genes when they’re crossed.”
Remphrey further speculates that, except for unusual circumstance, this recessive, “crooked” gene would never have survived in the wild. “I would say that if this tree had been growing in a forest stand, it would have been eliminated. Growing as low as it does it would have been starved for light and probably would have died. But for whatever reason it grew in an open field, away from other trees.”
Perhaps it takes a biologist, or at least someone unsusceptible to superstition, to see the beauty in these poplars. “I was always thinking that it would be interesting to introduce it as a cultivar,” says Remphrey. “But there’s a couple of things that stand against that. First, it produces a canker at a certain stage. It does heal but it’s not too attractive to people who run nurseries. The other thing is that doing that would be contrary to the people at Hafford who have a special attachment to the trees.”
For the moment, then, the little stand of mutated poplars will be reserved for those inclined to make the drive to test their own sensitivity to supernatural causes.
“Maybe,” offers Remphrey with a generous laugh, “it was aliens that caused the mutations.”
This article was first published in Spring 2007 issue of Prairies North Magazine which is no longer in print. Don't miss another issue and get a subscription today!