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

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Cottonwood grove

Poplar trees passing from maturity to old age

Grove of cottonwoods at a ranch entrance
in the Nebraska Sandhills, about 1957

Note: As you read this, you must remember that in the Nebraska Sandhills, there are no natural forests. The Sandhills are one of the great prairies of North America.

The grove of cottonwood (Populus deltoides) trees pictured above was the first thing you saw at the Sandhill ranch where I grew up. They towered above the west side of our ranch road, from our mailbox to the first auto-gate.

When my brother and I walked home from school, I liked to crawl under the fence at the mailbox and walk through these trees. I had never walked through a real forest, but I imagined that a forest would be something like this grove -- a quiet place shaded by tall, majestic trees. This mighty stand of cottonwoods seemed much more like a forest than the shelter-belts around our house. In the shelter-belts, the trees were short and bushy, and they grew in rows.

On windy days, I looked up and saw the tops of the trees moving, but the wind was not as strong at ground level inside the grove as it was outside it. Even though the trees were widely spaced, they seemed to slow the wind. My father knew this fact, as well. On bitter winter days, he sometimes fed the cattle their hay under these trees.¹

I brought my children to visit my childhood home in 1999. It had been about 25 years since my parents moved their ranching operation to Missouri, and I left Nebraska. I was shocked to see that many of the trees in the cottonwood "forest" of my childhood were dead or dying. I suppose the grove was planted by homesteaders after they began settling in Duff Valley in the 1880s. A cottonwood rarely lives more than a century. I knew that, of course, but I still imagined that my cottonwoods would live forever.

The same grove of cottonwoods, roughly 40 years later

Cottonwood trees of my childhood

¹The following paragraph from an Australian farm forestry page describes the same phenomenon:

In the case of scattered trees, the strongest winds tend to flow evenly over the top of the canopies, leaving the wind speeds at ground level much lower over the whole area. Measurements taken amongst widely spaced trees spread across grazing land indicate that reductions in wind speed of 40% over the whole paddock are possible with just 17 large remnant eucalypt trees per hectare, or about 200 young pruned timber trees per hectare. The larger the trees or the greater the stocking rate, the slower the wind speed will be. Such areas may be valuable as stock havens for ‘off-shears’ sheep or developed as special lambing or calving areas. (Source: "Trees for Wind Shelter")

5 comments -- please add yours:

Laurrie said...

I loved this, and seeing your old photo. When I went back to see the 30 spruce trees my dad had planted from little seedlings, I was shocked to see how tangled and broken and overgrown and crowded they were... a real mess 56 years later! Not what I remembered at all.

Genevieve said...

I have been going through an old photo album and scanning the photos that my mother taped and glued (yes, taped and glued) to the pages. It has been a real experience in time travel.

My parents planted shelterbelts in every pasture when I was a little kid. My dad was proud of them when he went back to visit in his later years. He would be surprised that now redcedars (one of the most common trees of Nebraska shelterbelts) are becoming invasive. Ranchers actually have to go through their pastures and spray the cedar seedlings with Roundup.

Monado said...

The one bright and beautiful thing I could see from my bedroom window was a row of poplars peeking up over a roof. They lasted only about 35 years before dying of old age. I was sorry to see them go because I had spent so many hours watching their leaves flash and gleam in the sunlight.

Thank you for reminding me.

Bill said...

Very nice post about cottonwood trees. I love this member of the Populus genus. It is mostly found along rivers and in floodplains here in New England. It takes a beating in the north as snow loads and high winds damage these relatively soft trees in our bitter winters.

There really is nothing quite like a cottonwood grove; very peaceful and evokes wonderful thoughts.

Thank you and beautifully written.

DRB said...

Great post -- I liked the part about the wind.

Click any label...

advice (45) alder trees (1) Arbor Day (1) ash trees (11) Atlantic white cedar (1) atmosphere (2) autumn (1) bald cypress trees (8) bark (8) bayberry trees (1) beech trees (8) big trees (11) birch trees (2) black cherry trees (1) black locust trees (2) black walnut trees (7) Bradford pear trees (2) buckeye trees (2) butternut trees (1) catalpa trees (4) cherry trees (2) chestnut trees (1) Christmas trees (1) copyright (1) corkwood (1) crabapple trees (1) dogwood trees (6) drought (2) Eastern redbud trees (5) Eastern redcedar (5) ecosystem (6) education (5) elm trees (4) emerald ash borer (11) Empress tree (2) fast growing trees (7) festivals and carnivals (2) fir trees (1) firewood (6) foliage (11) forest (14) forest fires (1) forestry (7) freebies (2) ginkgo trees (1) hackberry trees (4) hawthorn trees (3) hemlock trees (1) hickory trees (11) historic trees (9) history (42) holly trees (1) honeylocust trees (2) hophornbean trees (1) hoptree (1) hornbeam trees (2) internet (3) invasive (13) juniper trees (5) Kentucky coffeetree (2) landscaping (3) larch trees (1) linden trees (1) logging (4) maple trees (10) mimosa trees (3) mistakes (14) narrow trees (1) native fruit (9) native trees (16) oak trees (38) old growth forests (5) ornamental trees (6) osage orange (5) pawpaw trees (1) pecan trees (1) persimmon tree (3) pine trees (9) poems (5) poison-sumac (1) poplar trees (10) prehistoric trees (3) quizzes etc. (1) rhododendron trees (1) sassafras trees (3) serviceberry trees (2) Silver maple trees (2) small trees (4) spring (7) spruce trees (4) statistics (2) sumac trees (4) sweetgum trees (4) sycamore trees (10) tall trees (5) tree cavities (1) tree identification (8) Tree of heaven (2) tree planting (11) tree problems (40) tree removal (2) tree roots (5) trees for problem spots (7) tuliptrees (tulip poplar) (2) urban forest (7) viburnum trees (1) wetlands (5) wild plum trees (4) wildlife trees (27) willow trees (6) witchhazel trees (1) woodworking (2) yellowwood trees (1) yew trees (1)

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