Sunday, June 5, 2022

Eastern Cottonwood

The Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) is a fast growing hardwood tree native to the Eastern United States. They are particularly common in the Midwestern states. They may be found as far south as Northeastern Mexico and as far north as Southern Canada. The name Populus translates to "The Peoples Tree" and is probably in reference to the usefulness this tree represents to humans. 

These rapidly growing trees may reach heights well over 100 feet and are the tallest tree east of the Rockies. Some reports I read said they may reach a height of 190 feet!!! 

They often tower over all other trees in their vicinity. While they grow quickly, and reach imposing heights they are short lived at around 75 to 100 years. They are classified as a hardwood because of the way they propagate. They are in fact very soft and readily shed limbs and twigs in windstorms. These trees are still a favorite among many individuals because of their rapid growth and quick shade they can provide. However check the ordinances in your area as many cities have outlawed planting them. This is because of their tendency to break during storm events and the copious amounts of fluffy seeds they disperse. This fluff can clog air conditions, vents, and create allergy issues for many people. 

They grow well along rivers, creeks, streams and other areas with moist soil in full sun. Once a seed has sprouted and survived its first month as a new sapling growth tends to take off and they may grow between 5 to 13 feet in a single year.  A mature cottonwood may consume up to 200 gallons of water daily!! Cottonwoods produce a rooting hormone, an amazing adaptation, that allows broken branches that float down rivers or streams to root into the banks, thus spreading into new territories. The female tree produces seeds at between 5 and 10 years of age, and a single mature tree may produce 48 million seeds!! These seeds are carried on the wind by the cottony fluff they are attached to. They will travel hundreds of yards away from the mother tree before landing, in some cases they may travel on the wind for miles.

While Eastern cottonwood is the most recognized common name, they are also referred to as the Cottonwood poplar and the necklace poplar. This is in reference to the long seed capsules that resemble a strand of pearls. Other trees in the Populus genus are the poplars and the aspens.

The deeply triangular shaped leaves resemble a heart and have flattened stems which allow them to quake and tremble in the slightest breeze. This quaking sounded like falling water or a waterfall to travelers who would follow the sound and would find the cottonwood tree growing along a much needed water source. You can imagine early settlers traveling by wagon train long distances over harsh landscapes in primitive conditions, often low on water, the sight of the cottonwood standing tall in the distance would be a welcome sight indeed. They could fill containers to continue their journey not knowing when the next water source would appear. Livestock got a much needed drink and everyone could bath and wash the trail stench off. Having found a reliable water source many settlers would decide to set up homestead and not continue the arduous journey. Traveling during the winter carried with it another set of challenges and food was often scarce, especially for livestock. The bark of the tree could be fed as fodder to cows and horses if needed. In fact Colonial Custard in the winter of 1868-69 reported during a particularly harsh winter south of Arkansas feeding his horse the bark of this tree during a campaign against the native tribes of the area.

Cottonwoods not only pointed to much needed water, but provided medicinal benefits as well. A compound called salacin is found in the bark, buds and leaves. This compound is used to create medicine to treat fevers, and help ease inflammation and pain. An astringent tea can be made from the inner bark and used to treat gastric upset.  Resin is a waterproofing agent and was used to waterproof boxes. Buckets could be made out of the bark to store and carry items. Essential oils made from the cottonwood could treat arthritis pain and muscle aches. Loaded with antioxidants topical ointments can be made from the oils to treat sunburns and other skin conditions. The resin is often called bee glue because bees gather it to seal up their hives to prevent invading insects and microbes from entering. It is also a key ingredient in bee propolis.  Birds use the fluff to line their nests, and woodpeckers are especially fond of this tree as it is often full of insects feeding on the heart wood and it is easy to hammer into. You will often find large woodpecker holes drilled into these trees as homes for woodpeckers as well. The viceroy, tiger swallowtail, mourning cloak and red-spotted purple all use cottonwood as a host for their caterpillars. 

The cottonwood tree is host to many pests that can damage or even kill the trees. One particular insects is the cottonwood leaf beetle (Chrysomela scripta)The adults feed on the midrib and veins of tree leaves. The larvae will feed on the same leaves, but they carry it to an extreme, they completely skeletonize the leaves, eating all the good fleshy parts of the leaves and leaving the veins and midrib. In large numbers these beetles could potentially harm trees, by reducing their seedling growth. Adults hibernate through the winter under bark or leaf litter. In the spring they become active again and begin feeding on the tender leaves and early buds of Cottonwood trees. Several days later the female will begin laying her eggs on the underside of leaves on trees in the Willow or Cottonwood family. The tiny reddish to yellow colored eggs hatch in a few days and the tiny black larvae will begin feeding. You will commonly find adults and larva together feeding on the same leaves. These beetles are plentiful and can be found most anywhere that Cottonwood, Willow, Poplar and sometimes Alder are found.

Native Americans believe all living things come from the Earth. Legend says that the stars lived within the soil waiting to be born into the sky. One day they heard a joyful sound and decided to follow this happy noise. They came to the strong, wide roots of the cottonwood tree and entered the roots. The cottonwood took the stars into the knotty twigs and branches. Soon all the stars came to hide out in the cottonwoods. They desired above everything to be near this joyous noise of human talking, laughter and dancing. Soon the night sky began to notice fewer and fewer stars in the sky. He spoke to the night wind and asked for his help. The night wind knew where the stars were hiding and sent a great gale of wind to shake the cottonwood trees. The branches fell to the ground and broke open releasing the stars to fly into the night sky. To this day if you break a cottonwood twig on the growth rings you will find a perfect five point star within. Breaking the twig at night, as you aim it toward the sky it will release the star held inside. Look towards the direction you released the star and it will twinkle its thank you. Native Americans as well as early trappers and traders made dugout canoes from the trees, as the soft wood was easier to carve than other trees, it was sturdy and lightweight making it a great choice for a river vessel. Cottonwoods shade rivers and streams along the shoreline helping to cool the waters for salmon and other species living there. 

We can see how the Peoples Tree has played an important part in the history of the United States. It provided shade, medicine, food for livestock when needed, canoes for water travel and trading at the forts. It was a homing beacon to water for thirsty settlers and travelers.  It is a host for many beautiful butterflies that brighten up the landscape. It was and still is considered sacred to many Native Tribes, including the Lakota Sioux that use it as part of their ritual Sundance. The cottonwood may argumentatively be the most historically important tree on our landscape. 

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