© 2023
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Whispering Cottonwoods

Some of you may have heard the news that there is a new champion eastern cottonwood tree for North Dakota. Located in Cass County it has a circumference of 29 feet, is 123 feet tall, and has a crown spread of 77 feet. It is the largest tree in the state. There is something about sitting in the shade of a cottonwood during a nice summer or fall day that can give one a strong sense of place.

Cottonwoods can be found across the state along streams, shorelines, floodplains, wet meadows, and similar habitats. They have also been planted in shelterbelts, boulevards, and yards. And of course, they are very fond of having their roots tap into groundwater.

Unlike most leaf stalks which are round and rather rigid, the leaf stalks of cottonwood are rather flattened in cross section and a bit flimsy. Along with the large deltoid or triangular shaped leaf blades, the slightest wind causes the leaves to tremble or quake, bump into each other and produce that distinctive sound of rustling leaves. Quaking aspen does something similar.

Cottonwood shows up in many Native American stories. And Theodore Roosevelt noted in his Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail that few sounds would break the stillness near his Elkhorn Ranch on the Little Missouri River. But if the wind stirred at all, the leaves of the cottonwood trees would rustle, quiver, and sigh all day long.

Those cottonwoods can provide pleasant shade for animals of all sorts, including us. And those rustling, quivering, and sighing leaves seem to be whispering the secrets of life on the prairie. That appears to be particularly true for those cottonwoods in the North Dakota badlands. Those old matriarchs and patriarchs are whispering the history of winter cold, summer heat, bison, cattle, humans, and everything in between.

I recently ran across an interesting poem online, The Cottonwood Tree, by David Knape. It reads:

Observe the mighty Cottonwood
a tree that does a body good,
for when the wind is in its leaves
they rustle oh so pleasantly

The Cottonwood will stake a claim
any place there is a little rain,
then from a wisp of cotton seed
becomes a mighty sturdy tree

Cowboys see it from afar
leads them to water like a star,
they know the water there is good
anytime they see a Cottonwood

Not only is there shade to rest
the Cottonwood will do its best
to entertain its welcome guests
as the sun sets slowly in the west

For anytime there is a breeze
the tree plays music in its leaves,
and I have to say quite honestly
the Cottonwood plays symphonies

So take a rest in some quiet dell
take off your boots and stay a spell,
I guarantee, it'll do you good
to sit beneath a Cottonwood.

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of "Natural North Dakota"and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005, Chuck has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for the Lake Metigoshe Mirror, and his “The Naturalist” columns appear in several other weekly North Dakota newspapers.
Related Content