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From the June 2007 Conservationist

Outdoor Discovery

Cottonwood

By Frank Knight

"What good is it?" Environmental educators cringe when asked this question about a wild plant or animal. It suggests that we haven't yet achieved our goal of helping the public appreciate nature's diversity for its own sake as opposed to what practical value it might have. Of course, all of us ask this question; it's human nature, I'm certain. Nature appreciation really didn't catch on until Thomas Cole and his Hudson River School artists in the 19th century began celebrating nature enjoyment instead of exploitation. Even after we have become sensitized to nature esthetics and the value of all native species to ecological stability, we still rank or compare organisms as poor, good or excellent for many reasons.

Cottonwood treeA Case for Cottonwood

Case in point, the cottonwood tree (Populus deltoides) in the willow family. Here in the forested Northeast with more than a hundred different trees, the cottonwood was overlooked in favor of dozens of other more useful woods. Pioneers who migrated out of the forest into the treeless prairies suddenly developed a new appreciation for cottonwood, the only tree they found along streams and in low, wet places. Prairies receive insufficient rainfall to support forests. As Donald Culross Peattie, America's prose-poet of trees, wrote in his classic A Natural History of Trees, Houghton Mifflin, 1948, 1991, "... the cottonwood groves around the sloughs, so tall you could see them for miles across the waste, offered sweet shade, and even on the hottest, driest day reminded you, by the sound of their rustling leaves, of lake waters cooly lapping." Cottonwood became the tree of choice-the only choice-for fence posts, cabins, barns, ox yokes, and even coffins. So much admired, it became the name of at least one river and 15 counties and towns in several western states. Even though the soft, lightweight wood checks and warps, straight, fast-growing trunks were used extensively for crates, boxes and packing material. Perhaps cottonwood was planted as a shade tree. Recently, hybrid cottonwoods have found favor as a source of biofuel. In New York State, fast-growing willows are an experimental resource for ethanol. Perhaps cottonwood will play a role in biofuel's future as well.

Rustling leaves characterize the poplars. New York is home to five native and two introduced poplars, and all have flattened leaf stems that set leaves to shaking in the gentlest of breezes. Quaking or trembling aspen is the champion shaker, and is much admired in the West for its golden autumn color amidst dark conifers. Poplar is derived from arbor populi, tree of the people, for its use in Roman public places.

cottonwoodWords of Caution

For many reasons, the cottonwood is not recommended as a street or yard tree. Short-lived trees with easily wind-broken branches require maintenance and too frequent replacement. The cottonwood's least endearing quality is the "cotton" for which the tree is named. Seeds are carried away in a cottony mass-perfect for dispersal along streams. But along municipal streets, it blows and accumulates in thick piles along curbs and in dooryards. It's fun seeing a "snowfall" of cotton in June, unless you live near one.

So, enjoy cottonwoods where midwesterners do-along our waterways and in low, wet places. How can you easily identify cottonwoods and any of the other trees that share our spaces? My favorite simple, inexpensive picture key is Tree Finder by May T. Watts, Nature Study Guild, Rochester, NY. You can find the book at nature center book shops or on line. Check out other little books in the finders series to groups of plants and animals. Our outdoor adventures are so much more satisfying when we can affix names to our most common plants and animals.

Photo: Frank Knight