Monday, February 8, 2016

Old Friends (tree-following)

My circle of close friends includes two trees. This may seem odd, but it’s impossible to follow a tree for a year without become friends! It was Lucy Corrander who started these relationships, when she invited anyone with an interest to choose and follow a tree, and report on it monthly. That was several years ago. We haven’t quit. Now the gatherings are kindly hosted by the Squirrelbasket (read the latest news here).

Last month I announced I would follow a juneberry in 2016, once I found one. So far, snowy weather has limited my search. An excursion to potential habitat in Vedauwoo Glen was unsuccessful, but still fun.
We had the picnic area all to ourselves!

So for this month, I’m reporting on my old friends.
Old friends Sparky and the cottonwood tree (preparing to estimate height).
The cottonwood I followed in 2014 grows on the bank of the Laramie River, just a short walk from my house. I see it almost daily. I never did decide if it’s one tree or several (multiple trunks) nor its exact identity. At least one of its parents must have been a narrowleaf cottonwood (Populus lanceolata), but maybe this is a hybrid, with genes of the Plains cottonwood (P. deltoides). The hybrid is common in this part of the Rocky Mountains—common enough in fact to have a name: lanceleaf cottonwood (P. X acuminata). Backcrossing has produced everything in between, most frequently narrowleaf X lanceleaf. In other words … it’s a taxonomic mess.

Even in the middle of winter, I make my daily trek through the cottonwood forest along the river … as I did this morning to see how the tree was doing. Walking through the snow and bare trees, I think about the trappers who spent the winter there in 1831-32. They grew fat on bison, elk, deer and pronghorn antelope, but their horses wouldn’t eat the inner bark of these cottonwoods and so starved. The men realized too late that they had camped in the wrong kind of cottonwoods—the bark of narrowleafs (and the hybrids) is bitter.
I switched to black-and-white; it was that kind of day.
Old and new friends (Emmie in foreground).
Lots of buds up high, waiting patiently. Only three more months ...
At the base of the trunks is a secluded spot where elves and fairies gather.
The shredded plastic bag that was caught on a high branch in 2014 is gone. But now someone has flagged this tree. What does it mean? A university student’s study?

• • •

Last year I stumbled upon a willow growing in a nook in the wall of a small limestone canyon, shaded by junipers. I was surprised to find it in that dry rocky canyon. Furthermore, it was blooming—on February 23, in Wyoming, at 7200 feet elevation! I had to follow this tree and learn more.
Male pussy willow in bloom; February 23, 2015.
The silvery catkins emerging from the dark buds revealed it to be an American pussy willow (Salix discolor), specifically a male. These willows are famous for blooming very early. When I returned from vacation in late May, it had leafed out. Then in July I discovered how it survives. After a hard rain, a waterfall was cascading down the wall behind the willow. The pool at the base stayed almost a month, long after the waterfall was gone. This site is not as dry as it looks!
Pool at base (July 2015), possibly a swimming hole for elves and fairies!
The willow isn't as convenient to visit as the cottonwood. I have to drive across town, and walk about a half mile. And now it’s cold, snowy and windy. Who wants to walk in 30 mph winds?! But the sun is shining! But it’s cold! But the willow might be blooming! … that decided it.
Looking up Willow Canyon .
Hoping to see wild flowers in February, I crossed the snowy prairie, turned towards Willow Canyon, and post-holed through snow up the draw to the willow. There I found …
… the willow with it's canopy swaying and twigs dancing against the sky. Even in the canyon bottom the wind was blowing. I looked close and found white hairs emerging from a few of the dark buds—the first flowers of the season, on February 6! They were wonderful to see, but impossible to photograph. I collected two twigs and took them home.
Willow flowers are hardly showy, but I love this “bouquet”—it’s so nice that the flowers are emerging, confirming that spring will arrive again.

When I collected the twigs, a bit of white hair was visible at the tips of two buds. Now 24 hours later, one of the buds is beginning to bloom vigorously (relatively speaking), and a third is opening.
When male pussy willow catkins (flower clusters) first emerge, they are silky and suggestive of cats’ feet.
Male pussy willow flowers (lower right) have several stamens, a nectary, and a bract with long silky hairs.
Britton and Brown 1913 (via USDA Plants Database).

Tree-following ... let's do it!


  1. I am sure that coming spring you will find the Juneberries.
    Meanwhile, the winter shots are great! and thanks for reminding me to collect some willow branches; I love to see the catkins opening :)

    1. Thanks, bi. It's great to have these catkins for company this time of year, hope you find some.

  2. How intriguing about the tagging. Your almost black and white snow shots are hauntingly beautiful. I must keep an eye out for pussy willow! I remember seeing my first spring catkins in the Etruscan site of Veio in Italy in very early January the year we lived in Rome. How sad about the poor horses!

    1. thanks, Caroline. I'm getting into black-and-white photography these days. Seems better for winter photography. Neat that among things Roman you remember pussy willows :-)

  3. The buds on trees are very attractive in their own right.
    Where were all the picnickers, it is only a bit of snow.😎

    1. chuckle, you're right, Brian ... and Wyomingites are supposed to be so tough!

  4. I love that willow vase arrangement--you could have posted for In a Vase on Monday. :) An interesting post and fascinating about the trappers and their poor, starving horses--thanks for sharing the link to your story. .

    1. Thanks, Tina, that "arrangement" came together on it's own--fun when that happens.

  5. Love the new pussy-willows. There's a term the founding fathers must have taken to America with them! So many of our UK words for natural things are different from yours.
    It was lovely to revisit your trees (I am often drawn back myself to past tree loves - nostalgic, isn't it?).
    And thank you for the pieces of history you always share.
    Hope you locate a juneberry soon :)

  6. Thanks, squirrelbasket. I'm so glad you were willing to take over the helm. Tree-following is always a worthwhile endeavor in one way or another!

  7. Yay, Pussy Willows! I so enjoy the "tree following" meme. My tree (in a pot) is still in the garage, but I will bring it out soon, when the brutal Arctic blast ends. I think of trees (and plants) as friends, too. :)

    1. So you will be joining us, Beth? I hope so, I'm sure you will have plenty of interest to add.