Willa Cather lived most of her life in the sandhills of Nebraska and considered the cottonwood tree to be “the most beautiful tree on the plains”. That’s probably because it was the only tree she saw, but still, it’s a lovely claim. Cather is not the only writer who has marveled at the cottonwood’s beauty and tenacity. Walt Whitman pointed to its practical use in his seminal Song of Myself, writing of travelers seeking refuge who “make fast towards dusk near the cotton-wood trees.” It’s a writer’s tree with a rich history and an even richer ecological importance.
Before Cather and Whitman even wrote about cottonwoods, Native Americans lived among them. Plains Indians often wintered in river bottoms; branches provided shelter and the bark was used as firewood (the Lakota name for cottonwood is Wáǧačhaŋ or “peel off wood.”) The inner bark can be eaten in small pieces or ground into flour, and the bark provides excellent forage for horses during harsh winter months. The bark contains salicin, a noted painkiller, and is chewed to treat toothache, headaches, menstrual cramps, and fevers. The cottonwood was also sacred to many Native American tribes, who considered it a symbol of the sun, the birthplace of the stars, or the bridge between earth and sky.
During the westward expansion, as European settlers made their way across the prairie, cottonwoods were one of the first trees they encountered. According to Cather, “pioneers feel the cottonwoods are bound up with their lives.” After long, hot days on the prairie, the settlers rested under their branches, used the bark to build fires, and the leaves to make tea and as forage for horses and livestock.
The populus sargentii, or Great Plains cottonwood, is the subspecies that Whitman and Cather wrote about and the tree we at Ranchlands are most familiar with. An important resource in an otherwise tree-less ecosystem, cottonwoods can reach anywhere between 50-70 feet tall. They are a keystone species, meaning birds and other wildlife rely upon them for survival. Robins and doves nest and sing on the sprawling branches and underneath you can find field mice, mule deer, and porcupines feeding on the stems and shoots.
The trees are speckled throughout the riparian areas of both the Zapata and the Chico since they thrive in damp, low ground. One can find them along Chico Creek and at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. In 1806, Zebulon Pike, an explorer under the order of President Jefferson, descended upon a “copse of cottonwoods” in the San Luis Valley. He was on a quest to discover the source of the Red River, and the cottonwoods were a respite from the treacherous Sangre de Cristo mountain range he’d just crossed. This “copse of cottonwoods” is the location of today’s Zapata Ranch Headquarters.
It’s not possible to get lost, even on a ranch of the Chico or Zapata’s scale, because if you can spot a cottonwood through the sand and the sagebrush, you know you’re home. In the words of Willa Cather–at Ranchlands, we feel like the cottonwood is “bound up with our lives”.
by Alice Wilkinson. Photography by Robert Adams.