Irish Blessing

Irish Blessing

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Cottonwoods: Wtiness Trees

One of Reno County's largest cottonwood trees. Can you see Randy?
I have a lifetime love of cottonwoods.  At my childhood home, an old cottonwood stood near the south driveway, the first thing visitors saw as they approached the farmstead and one of the last things silhouetted by a sunset sky at night. 
Cottonwood at my childhood home, Pratt County
Every spring, the cotton from the tree covered the ground.
My sisters and I used both the cotton and the green unopened pods to decorate mud pies.
In this photo dated April 1963, I was 5, Lisa was 4 and Darci was 18 months. I have fond memories of adding just the right amount of water to dirt and then pouring it into pie tins and buckets. The fluffy white cotton and the green pods were the decorative touch. It was all about presentation, even back before knowing anything about garnishing via the Food Network chefs.

But, sadly, that old cottonwood succumbed to old age, and it no longer stands sentinel at my parents' home.

On Sunday, July 8, CBS Sunday Morning featured a story on Witness Trees. These trees "witnessed" the battle at Gettysburg. Across 6,000 acres of Gettysburg National Military Park, rangers have documented at least a dozen "witness trees" that were alive during the battle - living links that help tell the story of the battle, according to park rangers.

Cottonwoods live from 60 to 200 years. A few of them that still survive today likely co-existed with the bison herds that roamed the Great Plains long ago. (Great Plains Nature Center, 2006).

Cottonwoods help tell my story, too, and they have "witnessed" important passages in my life. 
It just seemed right that a cottonwood tree guarded the mailbox at the home where we've lived since 1985. (Click on the link to see our tree in every season.) Just a few weeks after we moved into this home, that cottonwood witnessed us bringing home our first baby, Jill. It was a quiet sentinel two and three-quarters years later when we brought Brent home. It witnessed their wobbly attempts to ride bikes on dirt roads, their first bus rides to school and "saw" more than one 4-H calf halter broke. It waved goodbye as they left for college and greets them when they come back home. It is our "witness" tree on the County Line.

 However, it, too, is struggling to survive these days, with some branches never greening up this spring.
The road patrol driver asked about cutting it down. While there's still green to be seen, we're not ready to let it go.
Mighty cottonwoods form a canopy down many a country road in rural Kansas. One of my favorite cottonwood "tunnels" is along 4th Avenue near Huntville.
Though tree trimming and age have made that tunnel effect less dramatic in recent years, it's still a favorite landmark on the drive to and from Hutchinson.
June 2018
One of Reno County's largest cottonwood trees is on a road just east of that old cottonwood tunnel.  On a recent return trip from Hutchinson, Randy detoured down the road to visit. 
It's so big you can't get the whole thing in a single snapshot. Randy tried to demonstrate the massive trunk with his outstretched hands.

"It's a darn big tree," Jim Smith, former director at Dillon Nature Center in Hutchinson, said in an article in The Hutchinson News. I'm glad he did the measuring because we didn't come prepared, even to measure the trunk and certainly not to scale its height. It measures more than 28 feet around, 96 feet tall and has a spread of about 110 feet.
Early Kansas settlers found the native trees as they arrived from the eastern U.S. The wide Kansas prairie was often foreign and intimidating to settlers moving west from the Ohio Valley, the Appalachian Mountains or New England. The landscapes they had left back home were covered with trees that provided wood for building homes, fuel for cooking, fuel to warm the hearth during a harsh winter and shade to protect them from a hot summer sun. Following the Oregon and Santa Fe trails west, trees were in very short supply.

4th Street cottonwoods, September 2015
When a cottonwood tree was spotted, thoughts of shade, water, wood and back home filled the minds of weary travelers. The cottonwood gave those traveling through the state a respite from the summer sun and the courage to continue west.

When the Kansas Legislature chose the cottonwood (Populus deltoides) as the state tree in 1937, the proclamation read:
"Whereas, if the full truth were known, it might honestly be said that the successful growth of the cottonwood grove on the homestead was often the determining factor in the decision of the homesteader to 'stick it out until he could prove up on his claim'; and Whereas, The cottonwood tree can rightfully be called 'the pioneer tree of Kansas.' "
4th Street cottonwoods in winter
They are like the old family patriarch - tall, stately, but maybe a little rough around the edges after years of standing through the changing seasons. Many a country road is lined with these big old trees, which seem to wave a friendly greeting in the Kansas breeze. On early morning or late evening trips to check cattle, the cottonwood's leaves rustle and birds serenade from their branches.

Their attire changes with the seasons - whether clothed in green for summer or in yellow finery for fall or stark and drab in winter's solemnity.
July 2013
For years, the road to the Big Pasture was lined with cottonwoods. It's just not the same after they were cut down last year.
The Palmer Pasture cottonwood in better times.
A cottonwood near our Palmer Pasture came crashing down two summers ago. I still miss it when we pull into the southwest gate of the pasture.
I always appreciate the fall colors on the cottonwood trees as we leave the Ninnescah Pasture to bring the cattle home each November.
And a grove of old cottonwoods frame our secret garden of iris each May along the Zenith Road and the glimmer of the shiny leaves at golden hour make it even more picturesque.

Long may these witness trees live!


  1. Thanks for a walk down memory lane, lined by magestic cottonwood trees!

  2. Wonderful imges, memories, history and information. A might, mighty tree!

    1. Yes, they are feminine and majestic at the same time.

  3. Wow, they're huge trees! And so pretty, too. My brother in law who is from Sharon Spring KS, wrote a song about a Cottonwood tree. It is/was one of the few trees on their farm.

    1. I've always wanted to be able to write songs. When I was in grade school, I wanted to be a composer for awhile. I didn't get that gene.

  4. What beautiful trees they are. I think you could write songs. Someday I would love to hug a cottonwood tree. Nice memories.

    1. Maybe I could write lyrics. But I don't think I'll give up my day job - ha!

  5. Wonderful tribute to cottonwood trees! Dad had to remove most of the trees in front of the farmhouse this winter. It looks so bare. I miss them almost as if they were family.

    1. It seems many of the old shelterbelts and farmsteads are losing their majestic trees. It is like saying goodbye to old friends.