Nature Bulletin No. 185-A March 27, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
On the east bank of the DesPlaines River, a short distance from the
beginning of an old portage route across to the North Branch of the
Chicago River, stand three giant cottonwoods. They mark the site of a
pioneer's cabin. In our cities and suburbs, most cottonwoods -- planted
for quick shade -- have been removed because their moisture-seeking
roots tend to clog drains and sewers, their brittle branches break in
storms, and their flying cottony seeds are "messy". But we who are
prairie-bred have a soft spot in our hearts for the cottonwood. We
gratefully remember resting in a shade, the rustle of its leaves
announcing any vagrant breeze, and the drifting "summer snow" of its
tiny seeds, each air-borne by a tiny parachute of gossamer.
On the western plains where streams were few, a belt of green
cottonwoods and their close relatives, the willows, marked each
watercourse -- the only trees in that dry land, Cottonwood logs were
used for cabins, corrals, forts and the stockades around them. The
early settlers planted cottonwoods around their homesteads because
they were so easily started by cuttings from another tree and grew so
quickly where few other trees could endure. The plains Indian used
cottonwood roots for starting fire by friction and, according to legend,
got the idea for his teepee by twisting a cottonwood leaf between his
fingers, producing a cone.
Except for the Northern Black Cottonwood of the Pacific Northwest,
and the Virginia Cottonwood, which sometimes attain a diameter of 7
or 8 feet, our Eastern Cottonwood is the largest of the poplar family:
the willows, the aspens, the balsam poplar, the cottonwoods and
related varieties, including some European species such as the
Carolina and Lombardy poplars. Our older cottonwood trees,
frequently 3 or more feet in diameter, have wide-spreading crowns
supported by massive trunks -- sometimes tall, straight and cylindrical,
frequently divided near the ground. The thick ash-gray bark is deeply
furrowed on old trees; smooth and greenish-yellow on saplings .
Like the aspen, the foliage of a cottonwood trembles in a breeze. Its
leaves are attached to a stout twig by flattened stems, so that the
slightest breath of air sets them to trembling and the tree seems to
twinkle and beckon in the sunlight. Its thick leaves, broad at the base,
roughly triangular and tapering to a long pointed tip, have rounded
saw-teeth along the outer edges. Shiny green above and paler
underneath, they become pale yellow in autumn.
The leaf buds, slender and sharp-pointed, and the flower buds, larger
and plumper; are covered with a fragrant resin gathered by bees for
beeswax. The male and female flowers are borne on separate trees.
The male flowers are reddish-purple catkins from 3 to 5 inches long.
When they have shed their pollen and fallen to the ground they look
like big red caterpillars. The female flowers are catkins resembling
strings of green beads. Each bead is a pod and in summer, when they
open, the seeds within them sail away, each on its parachute of fine
white down, and everything in the neighborhood will be covered with
fuzz. Hence the name "cottonwood".
Its wood is very light, soft, weak, fine-grained, whitish and, although
not durable, useful for making crates, woodenware and cheap barrels.
Its principal uses are for making excelsior and paper pulp.
The Greeks had a saying: "Poplar leaves, like women's tongues, are
never still. "
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Update: June 2012