The Plains Cottonwood tree (Populus sargenti) also known as the Poplar is a tall tree named for its cotton-like seeds. It has long been prized in the Great Plains where it was often the earliest and tallest tree to grow at the time of Western settlement. This attractive tree, which grows to 75 feet tall, is found throughout the Great Plains in locations with moist low ground.
It has legendary status as a friend to the early pioneers. This tree is banned in some cities, because of the fluffy cotton seeds that float in the air in the spring, since rain gutters and air conditioners become clogged.
What a welcome sight to America’s early pioneers as they forged through miles of prairie grass to find a lone Cottonwood tree standing in a low moist spot, perhaps near a small stream or puddle of water. There would be cool shade, food for their livestock in its leaves, wood for their fires and dwellings. Perhaps there would be animals (squirrels or rabbits) for an unexpected meal. Their trunks were used for dugout canoes and its bark for medicinal tea. The cottonwoods often served as gathering places, trail markers along the way and sacred objects carved by several Plains tribes.
The Plains Indians: Cheyenne and Arapaho have a legend about the Cottonwood trees and the stars. This story has been handed down for generations.
“All things come from Mother-Earth. Stars are no exception. They form secretly in the earth and then drift along just under the surface until they find the roots of the magical Cottonwood tree. They enter the roots and slowly work their way up through the tree. Finally they come to rest in the small twigs at the end of the branches. Here they wait patiently until they are needed. Then when the 'Spirit-of-the-night-sky' decides she needs more beautiful stars to light up the heavens, she calls on the Wind-spirit to help her and he sends wind gusts so hard that the twigs of the cottonwood tree begin to break off. As each twigs break off the stars are released and race up to a special place in the sky. Now the new stars twinkle brightly with a thank you.”
To find the stars, look for the growth wrinkles in the bark of Cottonwood tree branches and twigs; cut or snap them. Some twigs might be too green or may be rotten but many will have a perfect five pointed little star on the broken end. Snap a few to sure you have found good ones. Legend tells us that the shadow of the star is left in the end. As a fun project we used to cut or saw them into little slices and then made jewelry or pictures with them. This was a good project for kids.
Also, if you are an imaginative, poetical person and enjoy Indian legends take the grandkids outside on a clear night and add new stars to the Night-sky. Gather some Cottonwood tree star twigs, wait for a clear night and point your twigs to the sky and snap them. Look up into the night sky again. Can you see your star twinkling? Imagine, you have added a beautiful new star to the kingdom of the night sky. Can you see the shadow of the star left in the end of the twig? Give the star a name of someone dear to you or make it your very own. Look for it each night as it will be twinkling up there for eternity.
Marilyn Kutzli is 93 years old, still enjoys writing after writing a newspaper column for many years, publishing two books and recently a play.