Why cottonwood trees have inspired song lyrics over the years

  • Cottonwood tree leaves with seeds. Note the trangular shape of the leaves.

    Cottonwood tree leaves with seeds. Note the trangular shape of the leaves. Courtesy of Lara Sviatko

 
By Mark Spreyer
Stillman Nature Center
Posted7/5/2022 6:00 AM

Let me be by myself in the evenin' breeze

Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees

 

Send me off forever, but I ask you please

Don't fence me in.

-- Cole Porter

vb bv

"Don't Fence Me In" was quite a popular song, particularly with the singing cowboys, in the mid-20th century. When you stop to think about it, it is not the only time that cottonwood trees appear in song lyrics. If you haven't stopped to think about it, now's the time.

Murmuring in the breeze

Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) has a very descriptive scientific name. As you might guess, populus is Latin for people. So, we are talking about the people's tree.

In addition to indigenous species, many cultivated varieties of Populus have been planted across the U.S. You might say, poplars are popular.

The species name, Deltoides, stems, if you will, from the triangular Greek letter delta.

The cottonwood's leaf is triangular as well. It is the stem of the leaf, called a petiole, which explains why the cottonwood turns up in many songs.

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With inspiration from Cole Porter, picture yourself hiking alone on a beautiful spring evening. You pause on a bridge over a small stream. Along its banks grow elms, maples, and cottonwoods. A slight breeze moves through the trees. If you're a songwriter, you likely enjoy the cottonwoods' restful whispers.

If you're a student of nature, you might wonder why, in comparison, are the elm and maple leaves so quiet? All you have to do is collect a leaf from each tree and the answer will be in your hand.

Most petioles are rounded and somewhat stiff. Some, like the elms, are very short. A light breeze quietly passes around leaves attached in such a way.

The leaf stem on a cottonwood is quite a different matter. It is long, flexible and flattened at a right angle to the surface of the leaf.

The least puff of wind catches these petioles like little sails and sends the leaf to quivering. Other poplars also have vertically flattened leaf stems. Now you know why quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) quakes.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Male call

I love to see the cottonwood blossom

In the early spring

I love to see the message of love

That the bluebird brings

These cheery opening lines written by De Lange, Loesser, and Meyer are setting you up for disappointment. After all, the song is titled "I Wish I Were Blind."

I suppose one could say the same about cottonwood blossoms. They are a spring delight that later lead to mounds of wind-blown fluff that some find annoying.

Of course, not all cottonwood trees produce the seeds that earned this tree its common name. You see, there are male and female cottonwood trees, and male trees do not produce seed.

The pendulous male catkins, a type of flower, are three to four inches long and decorated with red anthers (where the pollen is made).

Female flowers are shorter and greenish-yellow in color. Compared to the male catkins, the female flowers are semi-rigid and hang more stiffly from the twig.

By late May and early June, the female flowers have become greenish-brown capsules grouped in elongated clusters, containing numerous seeds with cottony hairs attached.

The hairs are there to catch a gust of wind and spread the seeds far and wide, perhaps to an exposed riverside mud flat.

Water and fire

Out on the trail night birds are callin'

Singing their wild melody

Down in the canyon cottonwood whispers

A Song of Wyoming for me.

Cottonwood seeds in the grass.
Cottonwood seeds in the grass. - Courtesy of Lara Sviatko

When Kent Lewis wrote this for "Song of Wyoming," he could have been listening to our cottonwood. Eastern cottonwood does range as far west as Montana. That's why it's also known as plains cottonwood. It is, in fact, the state tree of Wyoming, Kansas, and Nebraska. Regardless of the state, cottonwoods are often found growing by a river or a lake.

If you are growing in a plains state, being near water is a good place for a thirsty tree to be. Cottonwoods are designed to collect rainwater and hold fast against prairie winds.

They have a shallow, widespread root system sprouting numerous fine rootlets. This system combines to absorb surface water, hold soil, and make the tree wind-firm.

As you probably know, prairie winds power grassland fires. Larger cottonwoods are ready for that as well. Obviously, if you are growing in a river floodplain, the odds are low that a fire will reach you.

This is good for the young, small cottonwoods that are vulnerable to fire. However, they aren't small for long. A newly planted cottonwood can grow four to five feet each year.

By the time the tree is 20 years old, its thickly furrowed bark offers some protection from a ground fire. By the way, cottonwoods can live for 100 years and reach a height of 100 feet.

A white tie dinner

There's a cottonwood tree with a limb hangin' over

We'll do the cannonball off a rope swing

Trent Willmon sets this lakeside scene in his song "The Good Life." What he may not realize is that there are some other lake inhabitants that see cottonwoods as part of their good life. These would be carp.

I kid you not. I first ran across this fact decades ago in "Fishing for Buffalo," a book dedicated to the joys of angling for roughfish. Rob Buffler, one of the authors, recalled, "I was fishing a lake west of Minneapolis in the late '70s when I saw a carp taking cottonwood seeds off the surface."

He was not the only one to connect carp and cottonwoods. In a 2005 story for Pennsylvania Angler & Boater, Carl Haensel described catching a carp with a cottonwood fly. He concluded the article with detailed instructions on how to tie a cottonwood fly.

The next time you're brushing the cottonwood fluff off your steps, think about this. Somewhere some guy is using cell foam and turkey down to make an imitation cottonwood seed puff!

Screen stars

I understand there are some people who have considered cutting down cottonwood trees because they don't like the mess. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bath -- I mean, river water!

Here's an idea. Take down your screens, plug in the vacuum cleaner, and suck it up!

Remember, the Arapaho believed great cottonwoods cast the stars into the heavens. So no, those aren't annoying seeds, they're potential stars.

• Mark Spreyer is the executive director of the Stillman Nature Center in Barrington. Email him at stillmangho@gmail.com.

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