Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Cottonwood Trees of My Childhood

Friendly giants in the schoolyard


When I was a child, growing up in the ranch country of northern Nebraska, we lived in a low-lying valley with two creeks and big sandy hills all around us. I attended a little one-room country school, about two miles from my house.

Duff Valley School in southern Rock County, Nebraska, 1965I can't imagine my childhood in that school without the big cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) that grew on the schoolyard. The trees were very much a part of our playground experience. Most importantly, without the cottonwood trees, we'd have had no place to hide when we played "Hide and Seek."

I remember affectionately one very large cottonwood that grew in the ditch just off the school property. In truth, we weren't supposed to venture off the grounds, but the teacher never said anything about us hiding behind that tree. Its trunk was so large that several of us could hide there together -- that's why we liked it so much.

Behind the barn (a relic of the time that children rode horses to school), the big boys had nailed some boards to two cottonwoods that grew close together. If you were brave and naughty (as the big boys were,) you could climb those boards like a ladder, get on the barn roof, and slide down on the other side.

In the fall, we played in the leaves, and in the spring, we enjoyed the beaded strings of "cotton" and the red blossoms. And of course, we all knew how to fold a cottonwood leaf and make a whistle.

I remember how outraged we all were when the school board (our fathers!) cut down one of the big old trees one day. They said it was threatening to fall on the schoolhouse.

Large cottonwood tree in Hopkinsville, KYA large cottonwood that grows near Little River in Hopkinsville, KY
As I've been writing this, I've realized that the cottonwoods grew only around the edges of the playground because the playground was mowed each year before school started.

I don't know if the trees sprang up from seed originally, or if they had been planted. They were mature trees in the 1950s and 1960s when I was a child.

In 2000, when I visited the little, vacant schoolhouse, many of the big trees were dead, standing like whitened skeletons around the playground. Cottonwoods live about a century, and their time was complete.

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Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927)

Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

Photos and text copyright © 2006-2010 by Genevieve L. Netz. All rights reserved. Do not republish without written permission. My e-mail address is gnetz51@gmail.com