Cottonwoods nothing to sneeze at


David Lindeman - Contributing Columnist



It always snows in Ohio in June.

Well, it’s not real snow, but sometimes it looks like it. It’s cottonwood tree seeds. I have been watching this annual phenomenon all my life. The other day as I was riding my bike home and getting pasted by what seemed like millions of cottonwood seeds, I decided to actually find out about it. Now you’re going to find out, too.

We all know that all those white, fluffy things that fill the air every spring come from cottonwood trees. But did you know they come from female cottonwood trees? That’s right, the male cottonwood trees send out pollen which floats on the air to the female trees. That fertilizes the seeds on the female trees, which are then released into the air attached to all that white stuff that looks like snow. So yes, once again, it is the females that make the big mess.

Cottonwood trees are a fascinating piece of nature. They are a kind of poplar tree and are believed to be the fastest-growing trees in America. Once they get started, they can grow six feet a year and they just keep right on growing, sometimes to more than 100 feet. There’s a cottonwood tree in my neighborhood that claims the prize as the biggest tree in the area.

While you’re sneezing or trying to get all the cotton out of your pool or clean up your sidewalk, consider this: you might think the tree is a big pest, but it has an important place in history.

Native Americans used cottonwood trunks to make canoes. The bark was used as forage for horses and even for a kind of tea. The trees got so tall they were used as markers for meeting places or to mark trails.

Settlers in the Midwest often planted the trees because they grew so fast and had so many uses.

But alas, in current times, the trees have acquired a bit of a reputation. That’s because most of us are all about convenience and don’t like cleaning up all that cotton. After all, we’re not likely to use one of trees to make a canoe or — heaven forbid — brew up a pot of tea using the bark. Way too much effort.

In fact, some cities have banned cottonwood trees because they’re considered such a nuisance. Sometimes they’re even labeled as an invasive species, although since they are native to this area, it’s hard to see that they’re invading since they’ve been around a lot longer than we humans have.

Cottonwoods also get a lot of blame from allergy sufferers. According to the experts, that might not be entirely fair. As it turns out, all kinds of plants are spewing out allergens this time of year, but since we can see the cottonwood seeds, we blame them for all our troubles. Chances are, it’s some other tree that is really getting you.

I’ll tell you what, there are few things that are as soothing as hearing the wind rustle through the leaves of a big cottonwood tree. Of course, since they grow so fast and so tall, they also are apt to be not so sturdy and have a tendency to do things like catch diseases and fall on your house. It’s best to admire them from afar.

And then there’s that white stuff. A single tree can drop as many as 25 million seeds, which can be carried for miles on the wind. So if you’re wondering where the air-pocalypse of cotton is coming from, it might be from that big tree in my neighborhood. Kind of a present from me to you.

We’re pretty much through the most of it now, so you can stop worrying about it until next year. If it’s any consolation, we’re not alone: about 60 years ago, the Chinese went on a mass tree-planting binge and decided to plant more than 100 million poplar and willow trees near Beijing. That included cottonwood trees and now the only thing that outnumber Chinese in this world are Chinese cottonwood seeds.

Besides, next January, when we’re up to our elbows in real snow, this June “snowfall” won’t seem so bad.

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David Lindeman

Contributing Columnist

David Lindeman is a Troy resident and former editor at the Troy Daily News. He can be reached at lindy@woh.rr.com.

David Lindeman is a Troy resident and former editor at the Troy Daily News. He can be reached at lindy@woh.rr.com.