As a breeze picks up in the night air, leaves from every treetop near and far rustle together to render soft, swishing sounds. But nothing sounds quite like the whisper of a plains cottonwood’s glossy, shimmering leaves sighing in the wind, as if waves were crashing along the shore in the distance.
The plains cottonwood was one of the only trees that assisted early American settlers as they forged across the middle of the country. Historic records document the sizes of these massive trees over so many years that the species is recognized on the National Register of Big Trees.
The plains cottonwood national champion tree caught the attention of American Forests in 1967 when the species’ largest documented tree at the time measured approximately 11.5 feet in trunk diameter. The tree stood in Hygiene, Colo. While searching for a new champion more recently, however, arborist Mark Lewing found the plains cottonwood he was looking for in Ravalli, Montana.The new champion was added to the National Register of Big Trees—a list of 768 champions sponsored by The Davey Tree Expert Company.
Plains cottonwoods are large trees native to the Great Plains region and eastern border of the Rocky Mountains. They grow in moist, low ground areas, typically near lakes, streams and rivers. These champions, standing an average of 50 to 75 feet tall, were friends to the early Americans in various ways. Plains cottonwoods provided shade and shelter from scorching summer heat across the Great Plains region. These giants were also frequently used for fires inside of tipis and homes made of wood because they do not crackle or throw sparks.
During the early summer months, female trees release clouds of silky, cottony white fibers that transport small green capsules of seeds. Cotton-like hairs surround each seed, which is where this champion earns its name. In early May, male trees bloom with a glorious purple color, especially after a spring rain.
The current national champion plains cottonwood in Ravalli, Montana is believed to have been planted at the turn of the 20th century, which clearly demonstrates the fast speed at which the species grows. Not only are plains cottonwoods known for rapid growth, but they are also known for their distinctive leaf shape, size and sound. These trees produce broad triangle or heart-shaped glossy leaves that can range from 3 to 6 inches wide and long. Often, the leaf stalk can be as long as the actual blade, anywhere from 2 to 3 ½ inches. In a gust of wind, plains cottonwoods can be heard because of the distinctive whispering sound from their leaves rustling together, which can be described as a sound similar to the ocean.
Whether you are a Great Plains native or visiting the region this summer, keep an ear open for the rustling whisper of the plains cottonwood. Remember to look out for the cottony seedlings that will fly past you in the breeze at this time of year.