I usually know what I'm going to talk about but I don't always know what I'm going to say. A little while ago, I talked about the juniper tree and today I want to talk about another tree which is part of the eastern Oregon landscape, the cottonwood. In spite of having been around them most of my life, after a little study, I now see them differently.
The cottonwood is the second most common and recognizable tree in the John Day River territory after the juniper. They are named for their seeds which for a few weeks every spring cover everything with downy white fluff.
I thought I was going to talk about how completely useless the cottonwood is but it turns out that it is not that simple. Which is not to say that people have ever found much use for a cottonwood because they haven't.
The tree is one of the most noticeable features of our landscape because it grows tall and fast anywhere there is water. If you see cottonwoods you can be pretty sure that you will find accessible water at their base, either a river or a spring. Just about anywhere along the John Day River you can tell where the river flows by the cottonwoods growing along its banks.
Cottonwoods always mean accessible water and their absence usually means desert. So pioneers in the desert would head for a grove of cottonwoods on the horizon knowing that there would be water, shade and green grass there.
But that is about the extent of the good news from a human perspective. The wood is not very strong and it rots easily so nobody builds anything out of cottonwood. It isn't even good enough for fencing and it burns so quickly that is is no good for firewood.
Even though it grows fast, it dies just as quickly so the ground under a cottonwood is usually a mass of dead branches. These can be dangerous as well as messy. I have seen a branch eight inches in diameter fall out of the top of a tree with no warning whatsoever in the midst of a perfectly calm and windless day.
But then I came across a website which pointed out how important cottonwoods are to wildlife of this region.
The fast growth and rapid decay of the cottonwood means that it provides food and shelter for a great many of the local life forms. Bugs burrow into the trunk and the hollows they create become nesting spots for birds, bats, squirrels, possum etc. The leaves, buds and bark are food tor most of our many grazing and gnawing animals. Since it grows mostly along the banks of rivers and streams, the downed branches provide protection and shade for fish spawning grounds. In short, a majority of the wildlife around here depend on cottonwoods for their existence.
So the cottonwood is another example of a truth we all know but do not always remember: The difference between weeds and flowers is mostly a matter of who you ask.
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