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  • William L Culbertson

The Rainy Day Naturalist: Cottonwood Trees

“Perhaps you have noticed that even in the slightest breeze you can hear the voice of the cottonwood tree; this we understand is its prayer to the Great Spirit, for not only men, but all things and all beings pray to Him continually in different ways.”

Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux

Cottonwood trees tower over most other trees in Clear Lake township. The eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoids, a species of poplar) grow fast, and they like the moist, well-drained sandy soil in our wetlands areas. Wind stirs the large leaves and give a rustling “voice” to the cottonwood. The leaves, which have a rounded triangular shape with serrated edges, turn bright yellow with fall color.

The tree’s wood is light and rather soft. Quick-growing cottonwoods are cultivated for use as timber. Recommended for giving shade in years instead of decades, cottonwoods can also be a good windbreak. However, the trees have relatively shallow roots for their height, and that makes them vulnerable to wind damage. Those surface roots can also cause trouble in nearby sidewalks or driveways. Being taller than many trees around them, they can be first choice for a lightning strike.

And the name cottonwood? Female trees develop floral buds during the summer growing season that bloom the following spring. Once pollenated, they grow seeds and start shedding cotton. Delicate white puffballs of fluff, the cotton acts as a sail to carry cottonwood seeds away from the mother tree to sow a new generation.

Cottonwoods are beautiful, majestic trees, but their name reveals their downside: the cotton. Female trees are indiscriminately prolific. During several weeks of reproductive frenzy in the late spring, the trees produce floating cotton that piles up on lawns in some areas until it looks like a light dusting of snow. Unfortunately that cotton also clogs filters and blocks drains. Open a window in late May to get some fresh air into the house, and if you are near a cottonwood, you will quickly gather a layer of cotton congealed on the outside of the screen.

Of course the solution to a cottonwood’s cotton is to grow a male tree rather than female. The, uh, secondary sexual characteristics of cottonwoods? Male flowers are red while female blossoms are a yellow green. Cottonwood trees first bloom on their top branches when they are fifteen to twenty feet tall. That means once you know for sure the gender, you already have a substantially sized tree on your hands.

If you live downwind of a majestic full-grown cottonwood tree that shares its cotton, I envy you the shade and view of the tree. Yet, for those two weeks or more in the late spring, you also have my sympathy.

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above.

Don’t fence me in.

Let me ride through the wide open country that I love.

Don’t fence me in.

Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze

And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees

Send me off forever but I ask you please

Don’t fence me in.

—Cole Porter

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