Tuesday, February 13, 2024

South Dakota Tree-Following—Plains Cottonwood

"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)
Last month I launched a project to get to know the trees of South Dakota, starting with Black Hills Spruce, the state tree. This month I chose Plains Cottonwood, which was a strong state-tree competitor and rightfully so. Plains Indians relied on it for construction materials, fuel for heat, and winter food for horses. Fur traders built stockades and boats from cottonwood trunks. And as early travelers slowly made their way across the prairies, the occasional tree offered a welcome bit of shade. That hasn't changed.
Plains Cottonwood, western South Dakota. I ate lunch in its shade every day during a grassland project.
While looking for information, I came across a thought-provoking article: "Cottonwood Houses, Cottonwood Stars" (2014). Much of it is included here. Sometimes a look back shows what has happened since. Sometimes we can undo a bit of that.

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."
Smoke flaps regulate draft and ventilate the tipi, especially smoke from the fire.
My camp circle.

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.

As I learned from my cottonwood projects, being a child again is therapeutic. As if to drive the point home, this showed up in The New York Times today:

"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).

This is my report for the February gathering of tree followers, kindly hosted by The Squirrelbasket. If you'd like to join us, you can learn more here.


  1. What a fascinating and interesting post, Hollis. I will be following your collection of South Dakota trees avidly. Thank you.

  2. Ah, memories of my youth in Kansas. The "cotton" usually appeared in the air around Memorial Day, or as my mother said, Decoration Day. After WW2 until thelate 1950s there was a small

    parade, small meaning one band and the color guard. After the parade the crowd moved to a location for a lunch of chicken and noodles. Even today the senior citizen soldiers vist 5 cemetaries for a brief service service and the head to the chicken and noodle feed. They might serve 400 people in a town of around 350 populatio.
    It also seemed to coincide with the beginning of what the boys called stinkin hot
    summer. As a kid we zipped down to the small river where the carp were sucking in vast volumes of cotton. They were easy to snag. It also seemed to mark a short stretch of sever thumderstorms. The local farmers did use a variety of wood slices to buid livestock enclosures.
    Thanks for the memories. Amazing what a blog like yours can dd bring us from the recesses of my mind. Mike

    1. Good to hear, Mike :) As for Mem Day memories, long ago in Ft Benton MT, I saw a VERY short parade but with 2 bands, both playing—a wonderful cacophony!

  3. We have several cottonwoods here in our neighborhood--the hummingbirds like to use the fibrous strands for their nests. Those toy tipis are fun, too.

    1. Interesting, seems like the cotton would make great nests.

  4. This is sooo lovely. My grandson lives in cottonwood country, when i visit him, i will share this him.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, jozien. I hope your grandson does too :)

  5. Interesting post and pictures. xx

    1. Thanks, Mike. I hope you find a tree to follow this year!