Can you imagine walking across an endless sea of grass? Maybe your journey started along the Santa Fe Trail from a tree-lined river bank of the Ohio Valley, the forests of the Appalachian mountains, or the sugar maple groves of New England, and now you face a gale of hot, dry wind. You think you must be on the edge of hell.. until... up ahead you see a shimmer of hope... a cottonwood tree.
For early pioneers, this welcome sight could be the difference between life and death. The tree usually denoted water, since cottonwoods typically grow along the banks of creeks and rivers. It also provided shade for man and animal, a place to rest from the beating heat of the sun before traveling on. Since the heartwood rots within the larger limbs, there was always a supply of broken branches, which meant wood for fire and cook stoves. The gentle giant also provided a home for animals like squirrels and the treasured honey bee. Bees meant a taste of sweetness, a rarity on a pioneer journey.
With its contribution to pioneer history, is it any wonder that two high plains states claim it as their own? In 1937, Kansas named it the official state tree, Nebraska followed in 1972 when the Eastern Cottonwood replaced the American Elm.
The trees can live to be over 100 years old. In Kansas, cottonwood groves are thriving in the eastern part of the state along rivers and streams, but the old groves are dying in the west due along our dwindling and diverted rivers. They are in danger of going the way of the horse drawn plow and covered wagons they helped establish.