Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ohio's champion eastern cottonwood

Ohio's champion eastern cottonwood* is inspiring, and easy to see along Cheshire Road at Africa Road in Alum Creek State Park, Delaware County. You will find easy parking along Cheshire Road at the north side of Cheshire Market. Just look north—you can’t miss this splendid tree!

Ohio State Champion Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides)
Circumference: 358 inches Height: 136’ Crown: 135’ Total score: 528
40.2391°N, 82.9620°W (NAD83/WGS84)

Cottonwoods are among the largest hardwoods of North America. Ohio’s champion eastern cottonwood is one of the largest of the largest, scoring nearly as high as the national champion eastern cottonwood found near Seward, NE. The Nebraska tree scores just a little higher at 563 points. The National Champion's magnificent double-trunk (see it here) is divided low near ground-level.

The trunk of Ohio's champion is even more imposing, I’d say. It's a multi-trunk tree as well, but the trunks are mingled seamlessly into a single cylindrical bole to well above ground-level before branching widely, reaching for open sky. It towers 136’ and emerges well above surrounding trees to intercept a lion’s share of sunshine.

Deeply furrowed warm-gray bark of eastern cottonwood is easily recognized at a distance.

No doubt, both champion trees sprouted in an opening where full sun encouraged growth of their divided trunks and full crowns. More often, cottonwoods grow straight or gently arching boles, and tall before branching into small to moderate crowns in a shared high canopy. Many cottonwoods grow together in even-age bands where they long ago pioneered open areas along streams and floodplains.

This magnificent tree is located near the head of a ravine opening into Alum Creek Reservoir.

About cottonwoods...

Cottonwoods obtained their name from early observers impressed by the copious quantities of seed “cotton” released from seed-pods during spring. In Ohio, during May, cottonwoods rain “cotton” along rivers and streams. Breezy tufts of delicate cottony strands carry seeds on the wind, and floating on water. A few land on sunny fresh mud where their rapid germination ensures a long first growing season free from competition with other species.

Cottonwoods are riparian trees, most successful where floods inundate low land burying woody and herbaceous competitors under fresh silt. Cottonwoods pioneer flood plain openings, sandbars, and migrating point-bars. Seedlings sprout rapidly, sending dense fibrous roots deep into silt. Once established, seedlings survive long inundation and burial in subsequent flood years. Cottonwoods mature rapidly, too, in about 35 years**.

Cottonwood ecology, the original river-dance...

Abundant cottonwoods partner with streams and rivers in an ancient meandering slow-dance of riparian renewal, the original river-dance. Spring floods renew the cycle annually. Flood water expands stream meanders. High banks erode along the outsides of meander bends while slack waters deposit fresh silt and sand on point-bars along the insides of bends. New sediment deposition is followed quickly by capture and stabilization by dense growths of cottonwood seedlings. The timing of cottonwood seed dispersal is choreographed with diminishing spring floods. Cotton-wafted seeds are certain to find fresh mud bathed in full sunlight.

Living natural streams are flanked by thin ribbons of cottonwood seedlings and saplings stabilizing fresh sediments. Landward, saplings form successively older bands. These ribbons of saplings are flanked by fewer and fewer increasingly large trees inland, often growing very large.

Many Ohio streams are dammed. They no longer follow the full, richly choreographed pattern of the ancient meandering river-dance because new sediment distribution is severely limited by modern flood-control operations. For some streams, the music has died altogether. The Ohio River is one sad example.

Ohio River "impoundments"...

The Ohio River of pre-settlement times was the central artery serving biodiversity in the Midwest, through seasonal rhythms of surging and waning waters that rippled to the headwaters of connected watersheds. Native Americans and early European pioneers found a vast verdant valley teaming with abundant and diverse life, and a tempestuous demeanor.

La Salle's "la belle riviere" ("the beautiful river") became legendary for both high water danger and low water struggle among frontiersmen, pioneers, and rivermen. It was the central artery for transportation and settlement in the Midwest until the iron age of railroads. And, it remains a waning resource conduit serving the mighty industrial heartland of North America through two centuries of immense growth. In service to economic growth, the Ohio River was dammed, dredged, leveed, and silted. Today, it is mostly a series of stabilized impoundments serving commercial transportation and flood control.

Many riparian ecosystems are impoverished today, from the loss of natural seasonal flooding—the slow heartbeat of watersheds. Long-term watershed benefits for humanity are reduced, and continue to diminish. Today, we draw diminishing dividends from ecosystem bank deposits made long before modern stream restructuring.

Cottonwood, monarch of the flood plain...

Cottonwood is king of the riparian pioneers. Abundant seed production and wind-dispersal, rapid germination, rapid growth, and the massive root-systems of cottonwoods provide important ecosystem services by slowing and reducing runoff and flood waters. Cottonwoods limit erosion of riverbanks and encourage silt deposition and stream bank renewal. Cottonwoods support migrating and nesting bird species. Cottonwoods are the most common among their guild (willows, notwithstanding). Cottonwoods construct a major framework in the superstructure of riparian ecosystems. They provide foundation and roofing, plumbing and air-conditioning; and they are beautiful trees.

*Ohio’s champion trees are detailed here:
Ohio’s 2007 Ohio Champion Trees – Native or Naturalized US

**Some P. deltoides details borrowed here:

Taylor, Jennifer L. 2001. Populus deltoides. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ [2008, February 26].

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