I’m thinking about changing my name from Prairie Mary to Cottonwood Mary. I love these botanical names. There’s another female Montana blogger out there who calls herself “Crabgrass Sally.” I love it. And I AM crabby. In terms of family history, my grandfather on the Manitoba prairie sold quackgrass uprooting equipment, horsedrawn. So maybe Quackgrass Mary. There’s already a Joe Cottonwood, who lives in California and writes books. (www.joecottonwood.com) He’s a Unitarian! Am I surprised?
I am surprised there is no incorporated town called “Cottonwood” in Montana, though there is a “populated place” with that name in Fergus County. It must be along the Missouri, since cottonwoods grow along rivers. It’s a “popular” name for the poplar trees that send all that summer snow into the air in spring. The one in my yard is a “silverleaf cottonwood” which is not native to Montana. It’s only a cousin in a big family of trees here.
“Populus alba, commonly called abele, silver poplar, silverleaf poplar, or white poplar, is a species of poplar, most closely related to the aspens (Populus sect. Populus). It is native from Spain and Morocco through central Europe (north to Germany and Poland) to central Asia. It grows in moist sites, often by watersides, in regions with hot summers and cold to mild winters.” It is considered a weed and is banned in Connecticut. (I think I am, too. Both.) But Montana is such a tough environment that weed characteristics are often what it takes to survive here.
The newspapers in the Mid-West were advertising silver leaf poplar starts in the 1880’s, so the sellers no doubt were glad to move into the new town of Valier, incorporated in 1909, where trees meant bearable summers. Now, of course, air conditioners have replaced trees and the cottonwood fuzz is a nuisance plugging up their intake grilles. The graceful trees extend limbs way out to the sides -- obviously they didn’t evolve in windy places -- and drop the smaller growth down low so that they form a shelter inside. They release bits of cotton that float in patterns something like those flown by fireflies back east.
My tree is in the lee of the house, but even so one major high branch was bent back and forth enough for it to buckle. It didn’t break off, but hung wilted through the winter -- then the next spring it came back to life and began to grow again. The old man who used to mow the empty lot hated those low-hanging branches because as he drove his little tractor around they hit him in the face or even broke off and wreathed his shoulders. The tree is right on the property line. Aggravated, he whipped out his pocket knife and cut off all the low branches, leaving them in a pile on my side. Enraged, I stormed out to read him the riot act. This town divides into two groups: those who practically worship trees (me) and those who hate trees (him).
Part of the reason I’m so protective of this tree is that I watch it so closely, a practice that will almost always produce attachment. In winter it is full of downy woodpeckers. Right now it is full of finches, some with rosy heads, others with yellow. They are taking advantage of the sexy (literally) little pollen danglers that the tassels on belly dancers are no doubt meant to imitate. There are an unusual number of them this year. Research suggests that -- dismayingly -- this may be the result of the tree being stressed and making a last ditch effort to guarantee the existence of its tribe. Diseased fruit trees are known to do that. And societies -- orgies before death.
There’s no question the tree is stressed since I haven’t been watering it as much as I ought to. The Baptists haven’t watered the empty lot for years. Water is metered in Valier now. I don’t care what color lawns are, but I would hate to lose my tree. Silver cottonwoods have a tendency to rot from the middle. One friend tells me he dreads to cut one down in the conventional way from the bottom because they can explode, sending wooden shrapnel into the woodcutter. Guys with bucket trucks circulate through the small towns every spring, lopping off the winter’s dead branches from above.
In 1961 when I first drove through Choteau, its streets were shaded by huge ancient cottonwoods -- all gone now. The pioneers were there early and so their material culture, vulnerable to time, ended early. When the ecologists realized that the cottonwoods along the rivers, the venerable groves that had sheltered generations of wintering Blackfeet, were disappearing they figured out that it was the spring flood pulses that had been replacing the trees by washing seeds and new starts along to new places. Since then controlled surges have “repoplarized” flood plains.
“A catkin, or ament, is a strand of tiny unisexual flowers, blooming on many species of trees in a form that brings to mind the graceful trees on a blue willow plate.” (Wikipedia) That’s interesting since I grew up eating off Blue Willow plates, believing those hanging clusters were wisteria blooms!
And here’s a REALLY funny reference entry, considering the struggle to try to make Wikipedia stop slandering people. Why is there no warning on their entries? This one below is protected by all the special terms only botanists know.
Warning! The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.
(also catkin), in plants, a spicate, most often drooping inflorescence consisting of a large number of usually unisexual flowers that falls off after flowering (staminate aments) or after ripening of the fruits (pistillate aments). Not all aments are alike. For example, the pistillate aments of birch do not droop, and after fruit-bearing the axis of the ament remains on the plant. In alders, the ament does not fall off after fruit ripening. The inflorescences of willow, poplar, birch, alder, filbert, oak, chestnut, walnut, and many other plants are called aments. However, it is more correct to call the inflorescences of willow and poplar simple spikes, and the aments of birch a spike of dichasia.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
Every object everywhere is wrapped in metaphor, opinion. politics and practices. Strewn along our lives as though carried by river pulses, they implant in our muddy stream beds. But sometimes the little finches in the silver cottonwood are just that and the drifting summer snow of the tree is a peaceful meditation -- no more.