Cottonwood Trees Are No Picnic

plains cottonwoodI attended a picnic last week. It was a gorgeous day, spent with good food and company. The only flaw was the cottonwood seeds floating through the park shelter and into our meal. I’d been missing the cottonwoods this year, until the picnic reminded me how messy they are.

When I was growing up, cottonwood seeds on the hot, dry desert wind were a sign that summer had truly arrived. As I’ve mentioned before, my home town had a Cottonwood Drive. This street wasn’t near my house, but we occasionally drove through that neighborhood, and the seeds drifted from branches to the ground, then swirled in the dust, or packed together in the gutters if the wind blew hard (as it generally did in Richland).

In Kansas City, there are cottonwoods a couple of blocks from my house. Some years, these huge trees put out so many seeds that the ground looks like a late winter snowstorm hit – the kind of storm where only the grass is covered, not the streets.

I hadn’t noticed any cottonwood seeds in my neighborhood this year, but there they were at the picnic. The cottony fluff clumped into big balls that floated on the wind into our hair, into the sweet and tangy salads we ate, and into our scrumptious desserts. My leftover lemon bread loaf (my contribution to the potluck picnic) had cotton stuck in its sugary frosting when I got it home.

Some years the cottonwood seeds in Kansas City is thick, some years I see very few. I’m not a gardener, and don’t know much about trees or any local flora. In fact, my husband chides me about my “semi-annual trips to the backyard.” (I go outside more often than that, I swear.)

But I did have to do some research for this post. I learned cottonwood trees are a kind of poplar, and they grow well along wet riverbanks, because they are tolerant of flooding and erosion. The Plains cottonwood is the state tree of Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming.

So, I surmised, this species must grow well along the Platte River, and the emigrants to Oregon must have encountered them along the way. Further research confirmed my hypothesis.

According to information on the website, Exploring the American West,

The Plains cottonwood is the great tree of the American prairies. No other tree approaches its stature on the grasslands that sweep five hundred miles from the ninety­eighth meridian [which runs through the middle of Nebraska and Kansas] to the foot of the Rockies. It is the big tree on the banks of the largest rivers and along the smallest streams of the plains.

And the Great Plains Nature Center’s site says

When the pioneers crossed the Great Plains on the Santa Fe or the Oregon Trail, they often went for a long time without seeing any trees. The prairie was frequently seen as a very foreign and hostile environment to people from the Ohio valley, the Appalachian mountains or New England since they were used to forested surroundings. No trees meant no wood for cooking. Dried bison dung was used for cooking fuel instead! No trees also meant no shade, which can be very precious on a hot day in summer. This and other factors led one early explorer to misname the area as the “Great American Desert”.

There is a tree that is well-adapted to life on the prairie, however. You can recognize it from afar during the growing season by the shiny leaves that shimmer and shake in the wind. The pioneers were always glad to spot one of these trees in the distance, since it offered the possibility of wood and shade. It also represented the chance of finding water, since this species likes to keep its feet wet, so to speak. That species is the cottonwood tree.

Cottonwood trees are dioecious, meaning their male and female flowers grow on separate trees. The pollen in male flowers spreads in late March and April.

After pollination, the female trees produce seeds surrounded by the cottony substance we all know – the trademark sign of the cottonwood. These seeds come in late May through June. Perhaps I didn’t notice the cottonwood seeds before the picnic this year, because they are arriving during the latter part of their season, due to the cool, wet spring we have had in Kansas City.

If you are allergic to trees in the springtime, like I am, you may be allergic to cottonwood pollen. However, the cottonwood seeds do not cause allergies. My mother always complained about her allergies when the cottonwood seeds blew, but my research indicates that people with allergy problems this time of year are likely to be suffering from grass or weed allergies.

Many people consider the cottonwood seeds to be a nuisance. Tree nurseries often will not sell the female cottonwood trees.

I don’t mind the seeds, so long as I don’t have to be outside with them. This year, I picked the seeds out of my lemon bread frosting, and salvaged the remaining slices, which tasted just fine.

What are signs of summer for you?

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  1. OOh I liked learning a bit about trees. There was this lovely story about a learning tree when I was little and it was a really nice story about a wise tree! The sun shining throught the tree leaves is the sign of summer for me!

  2. Nice to hear of the display of beauty caused by cottonwoods as I stare at a fifty foot dead one that neighbors tend to ignore as it is only a threat to our property. an over-whelming expense, I am sure but really needs attention. Trees are lovely when they offer snowffields, shade or comforting presence. My Hydrangea and Bracken Brown are my immediate signs of summer and the Mimosa trees.

  3. Signs of Summer

    When the attic fan no longer cools the room,
    and flowers begin to bloom.

    When lightning bugs blink in the night sky
    and an occasional bat flies by,

    summer is here.

  4. I live in western Washington state and dread the start of the “Spring Snow” from the many cottonwood trees in our area. Not my favorite tree – to be sure.

  5. Being clueless about tree species (other than the dreaded Sweet Gums and their awful spiny-balls) this may be an irrelevant comment, but I think cottonwoods have a wonderful, distinctive, rustling sound in the wind. If what I’m thinking about is a cottonwood, I can overlook some flying seeds to be able to enjoy that essence-of-summer sound.

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