Misunderstood & Maligned: Rethinking the Cottonwood


 

Some people hate them. It’s thought that this particular species of lumber is glorified firewood, a slash species suitable for the pulp mill or crate-making, but not for fine joinery. (Or even rustic stuff, for that matter).

And, look, there’s no debating that the cottonwood is no Honduran mahogany or English brown oak. It’s cantankerous when it dries. Its surface fuzzes into splintery Velcro when you send it zipping through a planer. The reaction wood can be nightmarish to work. Its humble yellow-cream grain is often devoid of figure. The rancid smell it gives off if you cut it while it’s wet will make your eyes roll back into your head. And arborists and parks departments here in Denver regularly try to get rid of bucked cottonwood logs on Craigslist whenever they take a tree down, assuming they don’t immediately mulch it. Unlike other downed city trees, like walnut or ash or even other unwanted species (like Russian olives, an invasive species generally despised around here), there isn’t much demand for cottonwood slabs for people to screw hairpin legs onto or smother in Velveeta-colored epoxy. In fact, many neighborhoods on this side of the country outright ban homeowners from planting cottonwoods, since their namesake cottony seeds tend to asphyxiate air conditioners and bury gutters in a snowy layer of fluff.

What we call trash, however, often says more about us than the object we’re unceremoniously chucking into the burn barrel. And I can think of few trees with a more marked difference between their commercial value and their actual cultural and historical significance. Cottonwoods have long played an outsized role in the arid landscapes of the North American West, where it’s one of the few deciduous trees found below 6,500 feet in elevation. The plains cottonwood (Populus sargentii) is the species I’m most familiar with – an enormous shade tree that grows up to six feet a year before topping out at a mature height of nearly 200 feet. They’re cousins of both aspens and other poplars, something that won’t surprise you if you stand (or, better yet, lounge) underneath a cottonwood’s canopy on a hot summer day in North Dakota or Wyoming and listen to the flat leaves clap in the wind. Found in riparian habitats, gulping down snow runoff as they send out networks of shallow roots along creek banks, cottonwoods are also dramatically self-pruning, shedding their huge, brittle limbs during storms. (Something to consider the next time you’re selecting a campsite in a cottonwood grove.)

And while sawyers today may not have much use for cottonwood lumber, that wasn’t always the case. These massive sentinels of the plains and canyons are prized by the Hopi people, who carve kachina dolls out of their roots. The Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes used the tree’s cambium for medicine and fed their horses cottonwood forage during particularly brutal winters. European settlers and their descendants also relied on the trees: in southern Colorado mountain valleys, members of the Catholic Los Hermanos Penitentes carved santos, or holy images, into cottonwood roots and trunks, and many of the most beautiful adobe churches in Colorado and New Mexico feature (you guessed it) cottonwood beams and posts in their framing. Some stunning mid-19th-century Mormon pioneer furniture is crafted from elaborately grain-painted pine and cottonwood harvested in Utah—not surprising, considering that Brigham Young himself was a carpenter renowned for his cabinetry and elaborately carved mantles. Many of the Mormons who immigrated from England and Scandinavia to join him were also skilled joiners, and the softwood pioneer furniture they crafted remains an underappreciated niche in American craft history. And considering that cottonwoods don’t grow in massive groves and carpet mountainsides the way Ponderosa pines and blue spruces do around here, it’s probably lucky they’re not prized as a lumber species these days—otherwise, there might not be any left.

You can fashion stories out of cottonwoods, too, not just furniture. When I was a kid, a summer camp counselor showed me how you could snap a cottonwood branch to reveal a five-pointed star in the middle of the pith. She told us an old camp story about how cottonwood roots carry stars that are born in the deep darkness of the earth up through their branches, and when branches break during wild windstorms, the stars flee and scatter and populate the night sky.

Because cottonwood trees frame many significant memories from my childhood in the West—and also because I like to use lumber that’s been grown and milled locally whenever possible for projects like this one—I decided to break down a 12/4 cottonwood slab for the carcass of a new plane till in my shop. “Slab” isn’t the right word, really. It was more of a chunk: a three-foot length with some shimmering chatoyance buried beneath the mill marks, its grain peppered with tiny insect holes to add character. (Cottonwoods are the Holiday Inns of the Great Plains, as countless bug species, rodents, and birds burrow, nest, and generally make themselves at home in them.)

Cottonwood is a joy to work by hand, if you can score a straight-grained piece that’s free of knots. It’s lighter than other poplars, and while power tool users complain about how it tends to fuzz, a wickedly sharp plane iron and handsaw leave crisp edges and glassy surfaces.

Not bad for trash.

Cameron Turner

 






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