The Prairie’s Tree of Life

Most people are well aware that Kansas is nicknamed “The Sunflower State”.  With good reason.  Various varieties of sunflower are found in virtually all parts of the state, growing wild in pastures, and along roadsides and creeks.  Cheery, bright yellow heads follow the movement of the sun for weeks in late summer and early fall, and herald the arrival of a new season filled with cooler, milder temperatures.  

Most non-Kansans would not be aware, however, of the fact that the Cottonwood is the state tree of Kansas.  In this photo, the sunflower may take center-stage, but it is the cottonwood in the background that shades the emerging flower in the heat of a summer afternoon.

It was for this very reason that the Kansas Legislature, in 1937, proclaimed it as the state tree by saying: “The cottonwood tree can rightfully be called ‘the pioneer tree of Kansas.’”

Imagine you are a pioneer, crossing the rolling prairie grasslands of western Kansas to claim a homestead.  How do you choose the location of your new home?  What do you look for?  You look for a mighty cottonwood, rising majestically anywhere from 70 to 100 feet above the prairie landscape, easily visible from miles away.  Not only does the cottonwood supply shade and windbreak in the often-brutal heat of summer, but it signals something even more precious – water.  The cottonwood tree requires adequate moisture in order to grow naturally.  A healthy cottonwood tree has discovered and tapped into a water source that can also be used to supply the needs of a budding farmstead.

The cottonwood tree was a symbol of new life for the pioneer.

The cottonwood tree can grow as much as eight feet per year and reaches full maturity in about forty years.  But it can live as much as 100 years or more after its initial growth spurt.

That’s why I love this giant cottonwood that lives near the creek on our farm. 

It is a fully mature tree, and hasn’t changed in size for the almost-quarter century that we have owned the land.  It’s hard to know exactly when it was a seedling, when it first took root, but my guess is that it was already a large tree when my father was a young boy swimming in the creek with his brothers.  In fact, it could very possibly have already taken root when my great-grandfather first purchased the land in 1900.  There are several young, developing cottonwood trees growing along our creek now, but this tree is the only still-living fully mature cottonwood tree on our farm, and I consider it our family tree.

That is why I felt a tinge of sadness when I discovered the fallen branch one morning during a walk with my dogs.

Danny and I both knew the branch had been dead for some time.  It had not shown any sign of life for several years.  But it was a long, heavy branch and connected to the trunk high up on the tree.  We thought it might be dangerous to remove the branch, so we agreed to let nature take its course.  It would fall when it was ready to go.

But the tree itself still survives.  And good will come out of the fallen branch.  The jagged remains left on the trunk will make an excellent nesting area for the native birds.

And the branch itself will benefit us.  Danny cut it into firewood that will supply much-appreciated warmth when the harsh north winds howl this coming winter.

Turns out that our “pioneer tree”, our “family tree”, is also our “giving tree.”

(Cottonwood tree leaves turn a shimmery, golden yellow in late fall. Check out the October chapter in my second book, Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next week: August Reflections

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