The Patriarch of the Plains: Cottonwoods, Long a Sign of Water amid Dry Grasses, Are Struggling to Survive. (Restoring)

By Lantz, Gary | American Forests, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

The Patriarch of the Plains: Cottonwoods, Long a Sign of Water amid Dry Grasses, Are Struggling to Survive. (Restoring)


Lantz, Gary, American Forests


Frontiersmen crossing the plains during the early 1800s had their own vision of heaven: the soft green crowns of cottonwoods rising above the yellow sweep of sun-parched grass in a land where rain was scarce and potable water scarcer.

A lone cottonwood on the plains might mark a hillside seep or a spot where the water table was within digging distance. Or, a cottonwood grove could shade a permanent spring, even though the waterhole was likely trampled by thousands of buffalo hooves. Water was water, and the plains cottonwood rose like a banner above almost every reliable accumulation.

Towering patriarch trees offered shade from a searing summer sun, provided scarce firewood, and even yielded nourishing hark for hungry horses when snows covered dormant grasses. Cottonwood groves provided turkey roosts; nesting platforms for hawks and owls; broken, hollowed branches for cavity dwellers; seeds, twigs and buds to feed grouse along with prairie chickens, moose, porcupine, and black hears. Cottonwood limbs and twigs supported the straw-and-daub nests of brilliantly plumed summer visitors ranging from orioles to yellow warblers.

Cottonwoods even made the expanding West more hospitable. Trees that towered over prairie rivers were transformed into pirogues (hand-hewn canoes for trappers and traders), stockades for early military forts, and vigas or ceiling beams for adobe homesteads. And for settlers, and especially their wives, cottonwood groves hearkened back to more genteel landscapes left behind, a shimmer of green in summer and gold in autumn amid what must have seemed an endless expanse of grass.

Cottonwoods are a cosmopolitan tree, often overlooked in the wooded eastern states before growing dominant in the open country west of the 100th Meridian. The eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoids) ranges from New England across mid-America to the foothills of the Rockies. The narrowleaf cottonwood (Populus angustifolia) is a tree of Rocky Mountain streams, while the Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremonlu) is common in the Southwest. Black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) grows along the coast of the Pacific Northwest south to Baja California and inland to the northern Rockies.

Although appreciated, these beautiful and useful trees were rarely conserved during the roughshod days of frontier expansion. Determined to settle fertile riparian land, pioneers felled the original cottonwood groves for fuel, shelter, and cropland. In more contemporary times, land use practices in the arid West have created environmental obstacles that make it difficult for new generations of cottonwoods to mature. Dams have altered the hydrology of rivers, irrigation has caused water tables to drop and, in many cases, the periodic inundation of riverside benches and terraces has been eliminated by flood control projects.

And as native vegetation waned, introduced alien species such as salt cedar (Tamarix spp.) and Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) have virtually exploded along western rivers.

As a result, cottonwoods are now scarce to nonexistent along certain mid-western and southwestern watercourses where they once thrived. Helping the cottonwood regain lost ground is going to take some visionary action by caring individuals who comprehend the importance of the cottonwood as a keystone species in the parched western scheme of things.

In Oregon, that effort is coming from the Applegate River Watershed Council and the Bureau of Land Management, which have combined forces with AMERICAN FORESTS to plant more than 112,000 trees along the waterway. The 5-year-old project unites landowners, schoolchildren, environmental professionals and volunteers with a common desire to restore water quality and fish habitat through the planting of tree seedlings and root cuttings.

According to the BLM's Harv Koester, Applegate and its tributaries suffered years of riparian abuse from overgrazing, timber harvest, and destructive flooding from diminished steamside vegetation. …

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