References: Cottonwood

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FERN: [her eyes still on the boy] He’s got to the top now. He’s shinning up that big cottonwood tree.

cwood.jpgThe cottonwoods are three species of poplars in the section Aegiros of the genus Populus, native to North America, Europe and western Asia. The name is also commonly used for any species of poplar in the United States. Male and female flowers are in separate catkins, appearing before the leaves in spring. The seeds are borne on cottony structures which allow them to be blown long distances in the air before settling to ground.

Pioneers looked forward to finding these trees in the great plains because it held signs of water and shade and fuel through the great terrain in which water could be hard to come by. Cottonwoods can be either male or female. It is the fluffy white seeds produced by the females during early summer that give the tree its name. [Cotton for clothing comes from the true cotton plant (Gossypium sp.), not the cottonwood tree.] The seeds are very small, 1mm wide by 4 mm long, which is quite remarkable considering that they can become one of the largest trees in North America, up to 100 ft. high with massive trunks over 5 ft. in diameter.

The Facts

At best, life is hard for a young cottonwood tree. To grow and thrive it needs as much sun as it can get, so if other trees, even other cottonwoods, are too close, it must spend extra energy to stay in the light. Besides, cottonwood trees contain a lot of sugar, and it’s a fortunate seedling or sapling that escapes an animal’s appetite.

The cottonwoods are exceptionally tolerant of flooding, erosion and flood deposits filling around the trunk.

Trees had to survive prairie fires in order to live on the Great Plains. Cottonwoods did this by typically growing on the edges of rivers and streams and by developing a very thick, corky bark upon maturity.

Cottonwoods can live to be over 100 years old. There are cottonwoods on the Great Plains today that were living when the great herds of bison still roamed the prairie.

cwood3.jpgThe heartwood typically rots from the larger limbs and trunk of a cottonwood. If a windstorm breaks one of these hollow branches off, providing access to the interior, they can provide homes for squirrels, raccoons, and opossums or even a hive of honeybees.

As summer changes to fall, the leaves of the cottonwood turn a bright yellow, making a vivid contrast with the clear blue skies of autumn. At this time, they stand out from the other trees which share their habitat nowadays, allowing one to easily pick out the cottonwoods – true pioneers among the latecomers on the modern prarie.

Cultivation and uses

Cottonwoods are widely grown for timber production along wet river banks, where their exceptional growth rate provides a large crop of wood within just 10-30 years. The wood is coarse and of fairly low value, used for pallet boxes, shipping crates and similar, where a coarse but cheap and strong wood is suitable. They are also widely grown as screens and shelterbelts. The bark, which is usually harvested in the fall after a tree’s death, is generally very soft and easy to carve.

Cottonwood is one of the poorest woods to use as Wood fuel. It does not dry well, and rots quickly. It splits poorly, because it is very fibrous. Cottonwoods serve as food for the caterpillars of several Lepidoptera.


cwood2.jpgThe Cottonwood Tree was always a welcome sight to pioneer travelers. They could be seen for many miles, sometimes almost a full days journey away. The Cottonwood Tree almost cried out “ I am; I have food, water, and cool shade from the hot summer sun.” Sometimes the travelers would spend several days at the water hole resting and repairing their wagons. Let the soft whitish color remind you how tough it used to be getting from here to there in wagons.

If you keep a piece of the cottonwood tree near you, it will help enhance your intuitive abilities and open your centers of awareness.

The Native American, highly honor cottonwood tree, the Tree of Life. They say if you slash it water gushes forth from its body, just as blood flows from a deep cut in a human body. The old people say, this special water was healing. This is why we take great care when cutting a tree. We choose the tree for Sundance one year before it is cut. This is an extensive ceremony and demands many wise people to carry it properly to the Sundance ceremony. Before we sat it into place, the people come forward, placing their piercing ropes, tobacco ties, flags and offerings in the tree with prayer, before they stand it up in its pre-prepared hole in the middle of the up-coming Sundance circle. Once lifted into place the winds come. This glorious moment brings tears to you eyes as you see her standing in the center for our Sun Dance ceremony.

This tree is a symbol of truth and those who stand before it are bound to always tell the truth. It is said to tell a lie under a cottonwood tree will cause illness to the liar.

The Hidatsa Sioux say the cottonwood gives intelligence and will counsel a troubled person who sits in its shade. It is also said, when holding council under a cottonwood tree it will give insight and truth to those who gather under its branches. Seasonal changes are important for the transitions of the People. The Tree of Life helps the people to stay connected to earth, sky and Creator. The fluff of the new growth on a cottonwood tree represents the white downy feathers of an eagle. A sun dancer hangs a small downy eagle feather from their eagle bone whistle when dancing to honor and recognize the power of the Cottonwood tree and the and the Golden Eagle.

A cottonwood leaf is heart-shaped and represents the true heart of the People. It is the cottonwood leaf that makes the perfect pattern to build a tipi.

In the winter months, when food was scarce, the people stripped the bark from the trees to feed the animals, saving some a few pieces from the inner bark to make into syrup for gastric problems.
The yellow tips of the cottonwood buds are used to make a yellow dye for paints.

To please the children, give them a small “cotton-like ball” from the cottonwood tree. It is sweet and can be used as chewing gum. To calm the children, teach them to blow a special way on a cottonwood leaf to make musical sounds similar to a flute.


elk.jpgBlack Elk, a Lakota holy man, had a vision in which he was handed a red stick with green leaves sprouting new growth. He took the stick and threw it into the center of the earth and the stick became a cottonwood tree. In his vision he was told that in time, the tree would bloom.

He saw his people walking in a sacred manner and once again, honoring Mother Earth, as they stood proud and strong around this sacred tree. Suddenly he saw his people breaking the inner circle, going to wars and fighting amongst themselves. The sacred tree withered as the people grew sick while many died. In time a red man appeared and was transformed into a buffalo, showing that in time abundance would come again to the People. Sacred herbs from around the world became flowers with blossoms of four colors, making a powerful flowering tree. Around this tree, Black Elk saw his people joined together as one people with all nations creating a sacred hoop with no beginning and no end.

Sadly, Black Elk saw only a part of his vision come true during his lifetime. The cottonwood tree never bloomed as promised. Until his death, Black Elk continued to have faith with his vision. The Tree of Life would bloom again, and all the people on Mother Earth would stand together as a single tribe within the sacred hoop of life with the blooming Cottonwood Tree standing at its center.


One Response

  1. thank you for the good info.!!

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