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Flora Fact: Cottony Catkins

Eastern cottonwood sends seeds adrift on balls of fluff.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Thick tangles of soapberries, hackberries and sumacs encircle what remains of the Landmark Cottonwood, a historic tree that grows roughly 15 miles east of Canadian in the Texas Panhandle.

Located within the Black Kettle National Grasslands, the eastern cottonwood once guided Native Americans, settlers and other early travelers on the Texas frontier to a safe crossing on the nearby Canadian River. According to Famous Trees of Texas (Texas A&M University, 1984), “mail carriers … usually spent their first night at the Canadian crossing, probably in the vicinity of this tree.”

Though storm-ravaged and skeletal, the Landmark Cottonwood still lives to this day. In 1969, it was honored with a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark medallion.

Populus deltoides ranks as one of the state’s fastest-growing and largest native hardwood species. Before the age of 15, some specimens put on as much as 5 to 13 feet in height annually. They are relatively short-lived, however, and few make it past 200 years. Generally, cottonwoods prefer riverbanks and moist bottomlands, where long ago they could survive prairie fires. From immense trunks, branches reach as high as 100 feet or more.

In early spring, cottonwoods bust out with droopy flower spikes called catkins. Then leaf buds follow. Summer breezes help disperse millions of cottony seeds released only by female cottonwoods. In the fall, the shimmery green leaves of cottonwoods turn brilliant golden orange.

Trivia: In Spanish, álamo means “poplar,” another common name for cottonwoods. Some historians believe the Alamo in San Antonio was named for cottonwoods that grew nearby. More likely, though, the well-known moniker came from Spanish soldiers from Álamo de Parras, Mexico, who occupied the mission in the early 1800s.

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