|"A circle of cottonwood-leaf toy tipis made by Indian children of Plains tribes ... These they made in numbers and placed them in circles like the camp circle of their tribe." (Gilmore 1919)
|Plains Cottonwood, western South Dakota. I ate lunch in its shade every day during a grassland project.
In the early 1900s, ethnobotanist Melvin Gilmore visited with elderly Indians of the Great Plains, specifically those who had gathered native plants and still knew the old names and uses. He hoped to record this knowledge "while it may still be obtained, before the death of all the old people who alone possess it.” As it turned out, those old people were eager to share so that “future generations of their own people as well as the white people may know and understand their manner of life."
Gilbert observed and described construction of toy tipis from the broad deltoid leaves of Plains Cottonwood, Populus deltoides ssp. occidentalis. Ten years ago, I carefully followed his instructions:
"They split a leaf a short distance down from the tip along the midrib; at equal distances from the tip they tore across from the margin slightly; then, bending back the margin above the rents for the smoke flaps, and drawing together the leaf-margins below the rents and fastening them with a splinter or a thorn, they had a toy tipi."
Another gift of the Cottonwood are the stars concealed in its twigs. Kathleen Cain learned this as a child in rural Nebraska, from her father.
"You have to find [a twig] with a sturdy knuckle ... You have to cut cleanly ... One cut is best ... He turned the twig so I could gaze directly into its center. Running crosswise through the middle of the small piece of wood, the cut revealed a reddish-brown and nearly perfect five-pointed star." (Cain 2007)
A sturdy knuckle—the joint between two years’ growth. If you want to look for a cottonwood star, other species will work also. This is P. acuminata.
|This cottonwood star is 6 mm across.
"If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength." Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder
Cain, K. 2007. The cottonwood tree; an American champion. Boulder, CO: Johnson Books.
Cottonwood Houses, Cottonwood Stars. November 2014.Gilmore, MR. 1919. Use of plants by the Indians of the Missouri River region. Bureau of American Ethnology.
Johnson, W. Carter, and Knight, Dennis H. 2022. Ecology of Dakota Landscapes; past, present, and future. Yale University Press (in print and ebook format).February gathering of tree followers, kindly hosted by The Squirrelbasket. If you'd like to join us, you can learn more here.