Airborne fluff: The cottonwood tree
As summer approaches, the air fills with fluffy white clouds — and not just the kind you see in the sky.
Wed, May 09, 2012 at 03:34 PM
As the weather gets warmer, cottonwood trees will let their characteristic seeds fly, filling the air with what look like tiny white clouds. The trees are not actually related to cotton plants; instead, they are poplars, a certain type of tree. These trees grow very tall and have large leaves, although their most noticeable aspect is their cotton-like seeds during the summer. These often accumulate on the ground under the trees, and in places where there are large volumes of cottonwood trees, it can almost look like there is snow on the ground. It's certainly a strange thing to see in the summer, but luckily, the seeds have nothing to do with snow.
Cottonwoods are trees used in the lumber industry for hardwood, although for a hardwood tree, their wood is rather soft. They occur in different varieties all across the United States, and the cottonwood native to Illinois is Populus deltoides, the eastern cottonwood. Their leaves, unlike the rest of the cottonwood species, are triangular rather than in a diamond shape. Cottonwoods are very hardy trees, and can handle both flooding and erosion. So if you live in an area prone to a great deal of rain, a cottonwood tree would probably thrive there.
The fluffy material surrounding the cottonwood seeds when they are released is not just to look pretty. It consists of seed hair fibers and helps the seed float through the air, giving it a wider range of distribution. Similar to true cotton, these fibers can be gathered and woven into fabric if properly prepared. They can also be used as stuffing if enough fiber is gathered. Other parts of the tree are useful, as well. The wood is a favorite of artists who carve wooden sculptures, because it is soft enough to be whittled very easily. However, it is not very good as a wood fuel, because it is a very wet wood and prone to rotting.
Cottonwoods are a beautiful and hardy tree, so when you see tiny balls of fluff floating through the air, you will know that there is one of these lovely trees nearby.
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Eileen Campbell originally wrote this story for MNN State Reports.