“Perhaps you have noticed that even in the very lightest breeze you can hear the voice of the cottonwood tree; this we understand is its prayer to the Great Spirit, for not only men but all things and all beings pray to Him continually in differing ways.” — Black Elk
Adolescence comes early to the poplar – it is nature’s compensation for giving the tree such a difficult task. You see, the poplar is a pioneering species. Its chief task is to colonize vacant meadows so they can eventually become a forest. Vacant really isn’t the word; these fields are heavily populated with grasses and forbs that grow so thickly it’s difficult for interlopers like the poplar to get a foothold.
To do its job, poplar has to be nimble and quick. Aspens spread swiftly by sending up new shoots from migrating roots. One tree quickly turns into hundreds or even thousands! In fact, a grove of aspen could be one living entity, which is why aspen is the largest living organism on the planet.
The cottonwood takes a different tact. It disperses thousands of light, fluffy seeds in the wind. They can float for miles until finding a suitable place to set up shop. By suitable I mean suitable for the tree, not necessarily for people. One can only imagine the reaction of a fussy gardener upon discovering the little cottonwood growing in the planter below.
Once it sprouts, a cottonwood wastes little time on pleasantries. It’s grow, grow, grow! And who can blame it? A cottonwood has to compete with thickly rooted grasses and sharp-toothed animals, not to mention the occasional mower or string trimmer. To survive, it has to get big. Fast.
See that large specimen I’m standing next to? It likely reached that size within one person’s lifetime. Not bad for a tree many dismiss with scorn. I don’t know about you, but I’ll gladly take a few cottony seeds in my window screens in exchange for something this majestic.
Of course, the tree above is growing in the perfect situation: rooted in a low spot in a meadow that wouldn’t support farming or construction. No farmer or developer ever considered taking a chainsaw to it — and that, friends, is to our everlasting benefit.