Saturday, December 1, 2012

November Cottonwood

I walked along my favorite riparian area yesterday on a cloudy and gray afternoon.
Under our current drought conditions Piney Creek has all but dried up, and
low-lying marshy areas have contracted.

Tracing the course of the creek are stands of cottonwood trees
with thick trunks and irregular, branching crowns.
These huge trees are one of the most common trees in Colorado.
Cottonwoods are found along creeks, riverbanks, and lakes;
and, in some places, they are the only large trees to be seen.

Yesterday one tree I have walked past hundreds of times called to me.
I had never approached it because it stood far from the path across some big, wet spaces.
But the sedges and horsetails are shriveled up now,
and I found myself jumping across Piney Creek to answer the tree's call.

It didn't look like much as I came closer.
Boy was I in for a surprise!

What you could see from the trail were only some smaller branches 
sticking out from a big trunk that lay twisted and broken on the ground.

When I first came to Colorado and saw cottonwoods, 
I thought they must be very old because they were so big.  
These trees can reach a height of 150 feet (46 meters), 
and their trunks can be 7 or 8 feet (2.1 - 2.4 meters) in diameter.

But I was wrong.  
They are short-lived, generally surviving 50 to 100 years.  
Earlier this summer  Colorado's  biggest and oldest cottonwood tree was declared dead.
Its life may have begun before Colorado became a state in 1876, 
only 136 years ago.

Cottonwood trees grow very quickly, 
as much as five feet in height
and an inch or more in diameter in a single year!

Perfect cottonwoods are hard to find.  
They often have broken branches, 
may have toppled over in strong wind, 
or suffered damage from lightning strikes.
But each one is unique,
and this one was a magnificent tree full of surprising shapes and textures!

I kept walking around and around the tree, amazed at its unexpected size and character.
I came home with over 80 photos of this one tree,
a rugged specimen of plains cottonwood (Populus deltoides subsp. monilifera). 

The most noticeable feature of the plains cottonwood is its bark.
When the tree is young its bark is smooth and colored silvery-white; 
but as it ages, light fissures appear and then deepen to form gray ridges and furrows.
This thick, corky, corrugated bark helps cottonwood trees to withstand fires.

Another important feature of the plains cottonwood is its leaves.  
Deltoides is this cottonwood's species name and refers to the triangular shape of its leaves
which are 1.6 - 3.9 inches (4 - 10 cm.) long and1.6 - 4.3 inches (4 - 11 cm.) wide.
The leaf has a flat stem which causes it to quiver in the lightest breezes.
In the summer the leaves are a dark green.
In the fall they turn to a beautiful bright yellow.
Under drought conditions the leaves turn a dull gold.

Cottonwood trees are dioecious, which means that individual trees are male or female.  
In early spring you can tell the sex of a cottonwood tree by the color of the catkins it produces.
Male trees produce maroon catkins, while
female trees produce green catkins.
In early summer it is obvious why the trees are called cottonwoods. 
The air is filled and the ground is littered with countless tiny seeds attached to fluffy cotton-like threads.
It is hard to believe that such a huge tree comes from such a tiny seed!

The cottonwood can have multiple stout trunks and 
many large, heavy limbs that give it the appearance of great strength;
but its wood is quite soft, and it can decay quickly on the ground.

There is a good chance something lives in that hole, but I wasn't about to check it out!
Cottonwood trees provide food and shelter for many living organisms.

A line of cottonwood trees in the distance was a welcome site to travelers on the plains because it meant shade and water.

I've taken many pictures of the cottonwood trees along Piney Creek 
because they are compelling in any season.

I'm glad I answered this tree's call.
Of course, I'll be visiting it again.
I just have to know:  Is it male or female?

Until next time!


  1. The tree reminds me of an elephant....the overall adult look of it and the colouring. The soft innards seem so contrasting to the strength of an elephant unique. No wonder so many of the trees are gnarly and fallen...weak centers can't hold it up for long. The young saplings sound like they are quite attractive...the colouring. Now you'll have to wait all winter and into spring to find out if you have a male or female.

    Hope you can wait that long! The leaves remind me of a gingko tree...we have a small one growing in our backyard. I like it a lot. We have a few specimen trees(as we call them) because they are 'iffy'...will they survive our Maritime weather or not. A lot of NOTS...unfortunately, the gingko still lives.

    I have a beautiful Katsura tree that I made video of and shared on Sophie's blog. The leaves look like the cottonwood as well. I just noticed last week that the trunk has rings of holes around it above head height. I think it was a woodpecker having lunch. I'm so worried that the tree may have gone to meet it's spring will tell.

    Thanks for this tree you may have figured out...I love trees!


    1. Actually I was thinking of you, Ron, when I came up to the tree and saw its bark up close. Your comment about the bark on my "Colored in Browns and Grays" post inspired me to write this post.

      I will follow up and let people know what kind of tree this is. I'm thinking I'll call the post "Sex in the Park!" It's going to be a long winter!

      It could very well be woodpeckers living in the hole in my cottonwood. The northern flicker likes holes such as these, and I have seen them flying in the park numerous times.

      Your yard sounds beautiful! Have a good rest of the weekend! I still love my weekends, retired or not!

      I love trees too! Tolkien's love of trees is one of the reasons I enjoy him so much as an author.

    2. Will Sarah Jessica Parker be headlining!?

  2. I will try comment just up and disappeared!!! My fingers are too big for this keyboard Im afraid!! RON!!!!
    OK, where was I....
    oh yes, I am so happy you listen when you are called Louise. I do too and am glad I do. Funny how one just cannot not listen to that voice!
    This tree is magnificent! As you may know we do not have them here in NS. I remember first hearing about them when reading W.O. Mitchells Who Has Seen The Wind. So now I have seen them up close and rather personal I must say! lol
    I think they look like an alligators hide....very rough and deep furrowed.
    Another great post Ms. Barbour! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Jim!
      I'm so glad that someone gets being "called." You are so right! One just cannot not listen to that voice!

      I haven't read Mitchell's "Who Has Seen the Wind," but I know that he is a wonderful Canadian writer. I'm going to have to read it. I think there were cottonwoods in Farley Mowatt's "Owls in the Family" which I read aloud to my students numerous times over the years.

      Ron thinks of elephants, and you think of alligators - both awesome analogies!

      Enjoy your weekend, and thanks again for the encouragement.

    2. I used to read Owls In The Family to my students as well!! Great minds think alike and

    3. We are kindred spirits indeed!

  3. Your photos captured the bark so well. I love trees too. We only have ponderosa pines on the ranch, and a few landscape trees.

    You mentioned that you've known Ron for many years - are you from Nova Scotia? If so, you must miss it! I look at Jim and Ron's blogs and drool! So beautiful!

    Your "beer and jingle bells" comment was spot on. Boomer and Ben are Clydesdales. Boomer was on the Budweiser hitch (beer) and he will be in the Parker Christmas Parade next weekend (jingle bells).

    1. Thank you for following my blog! Yes, I am a native Bluenoser, and I do miss Nova Scotia. But I love Colorado very much as well. I shall try to catch the Parker Christmas Parade next weekend and look for Boomer! I saw the beautiful ponderosas on your ranch in a couple of your pictures. I'm afraid I'd miss them if I landed in Nova Scotia permanently!

    2. A Ponderosa Pine post is now necessary....such stately and majestic this asking too much? Now don't get all like Jim...I have to do it because they asked me to do it. Priorities, now that you are retired!


    3. I'll work on it, Ron! I'm hoping to go a nature walk in the Ponderosa Preserve, but I have to do it through the Plains Conservation Center or the city of Aurora. If I sneak in on my own and am caught, I can get a ticket! And the park rangers do patrol! I have been longing to get close to these trees!

  4. Obrigado pelo elogio! E bem-vindo ao meu blog!

    Vi suas fotos do pôr do sol, e eles foram belo! Vou seguir seu blog também.

    Eu não falo Português, mas eu estou amando este tradutor do Google. Espero que está traduzindo corretamente! Minhas desculpas se algo soa estranho!

  5. Hi Wiezer, It's Barb - I loved the photos - hard to believe I was looking at those trees with you just last Week - it is cold & snowy here in Calgary today - a brisk -13c (9f). Keep writing - miss you!

    1. Hey, sister of mine! Miss you too!

      I've been writing and working on photos several hours this morning. It takes me a long time because I am such a niggler. It's sunny and warming up here.

      Come on back! Ron wants a ponderosa pine post now. We could do it together.

      Listen, get after those other two sisters of mine. I'm in desperate need of copies of our northern photos - photos I can edit. I have a bunch, but I remember a lot more. Also, do you/they have any letters written by Mom, or us, or whomever, during that time? I need them or copies. I'm going to sic Sue, Heather, and Patrick on Roy. You will all get the finished results!

      Thanks (and stay warm).

    2. I'll see what photos I can find and maybe have Peter scan them to you:)

  6. Hello Fundy!
    Very interesting and meaningful article about the Cottontree!
    Good for you to answer the call of this extraordinary specimen!
    I can understand easily you took so many pics!
    Cheers and keep warm! ;-)

    1. Hi Noushka!
      Thank you for your kind comments and your understanding!
      I'm hugging my fireplace to stay warm!


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