Home & Garden

Cottonwood tree suddenly becomes controversial?

I was reading a survey from the Arbor Day Foundation, deciding, uncharacteristically, to fill it out immediately upon opening it, because it promised free coffee to the first 50 people who mailed it back. Forget the free trees and shrubs. Coffee's the real draw.

The questions started out dreamily:

Have you ever built a tree house? (No.)

Have you ever climbed a tree? (Yes.)

Have you ever played on a tree swing? (Yes.)

Do you ever relax in the shade of a tree? (Yes.)

The questions then dropped like a branch on my head:

Do you think the Cottonwood is an appropriate choice as the state tree of Kansas? (Answer choices: Yes, No, Not Sure.)

Followed by:

Do you think, in general, residents of Kansas care more or less about trees than people in the rest of the country? (Answer choices: More, Less, Not Sure.)

Weird! At this point, my desire for coffee cooled. My desire to express my opinion transformed into "Why the heck is the Arbor Foundation asking questions like these? What's the big idea?"

I went back to read the letter that came with the survey. It only added to the oddity.

The letter said that the foundation's job was to make sure people in Kansas and the rest of the country knew that trees were important.

Here's the odd part: "But we can't try to change the way people think about trees until we know what they think about them now."

Hmmmm. If you don't know what people think about trees, why are you so sure you need to change what they think of them?

When I asked Kansas community forester Tim McDonnell about the cottonwood question, he was as perplexed as I was. And it sounded as if he would answer "Yes" to the appropriateness of our state tree.

"I don't know what else we could be except for the Eastern red cedar," Tim said, laughing. The cottonwood "is our most native tree." It's also one we share with Nebraska (home of the Arbor Day Foundation) and Wyoming, he said. What — does Nebraska want to be the only one who gets the cottonwood? I wondered.

Well, it turns out, the answer to my questions is: None of the Above.

"It's just to gauge people's love of a species of tree," Mark Derowitsch of the Arbor Day Foundation told me. The question about the appropriateness of the state tree was asked of residents of all states, not just Kansas, he said.

And the question about the level of care that Kansans have for trees was "trying to gauge the interest of people in how proud they are of their trees and what their communities do to protect and plant trees," Derowitsch said.

"Really the purpose for the survey in its entirety was to engage our members, get them to thinking about the trees in their yards and their neighborhoods and their communities."

I still think the questions were strangely worded.

I recalled that Tim had listed the cottonless cottonwood on his list of 10 worst trees. But the cottonless is not the same as the Eastern, native cottonwood.

"The cottonless is nothing more than a hybrid poplar," Tim said. "That doesn't make them long-lived, because of insects and diseases."

The state tree, on the other hand, "comes in a male and a female, and if you select a male, it's a good tree," Tim said. The female is the one that sheds cotton and makes a mess.

One good local male that you can buy is the McHenry cottonwood, cloned from a volunteer that has been growing on Marshall McHenry's property east of Derby probably since the 1950s. The McHenry can be found, when it's not sold out, at Hillside Nursery and at Marshall McHenry Tree Farm in Derby. It gets too big for many home landscapes, but for a large yard or space, it's an excellent tree, Marshall says.

In closing, I found some words appropriate to this 150th Kansas Day from Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, quoted in The Eagle in 2005:

"If not for being the state tree, the cottonwood tree might suffer from disrespect or apathy. State symbols are like comfort foods, common to our cultural palate, and they make us feel good, safe, at home....

"Symbols make us unique and touch base with our roots and souls. I think when you look at a meadowlark and cottonwood tree, you look at it different than other birds or trees. You look at them as state symbols.

"And, as we travel and explore around the state, once we know their history and why they were chosen, we can look at them differently."

Maybe the Arbor Day Foundation has succeeded ahead of time in changing the way I think about trees. I'm looking at the old cottonwood with new eyes.