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Another Day in the Country

A transgendered tree?

© Another Day in the Country

Twelve summers ago, I discovered this little cottonwood tree growing in an artificial stream bed that goes to my fishpond. The stream was designed to aerate pond water.

To have a healthy pond, you need to get oxygen into the water. A flowing stream over rocks is our chosen method. Weeds, seeds, and all growing things are attracted to the endless supply of water, which means that I’m constantly working to keep the stream bed clear of growth.

I’m such a softy when it comes to plants! So it was when I discovered a young cottonwood in my streambed.

“This can’t grow here,” I said, exasperated. “Shall I just throw it in the trash?”

Then I got the bright idea of putting it somewhere else in the yard.

“But will it survive?” I asked myself. And then, “Do I really want a cottonwood tree?”

It was the fall of the year, so I pulled the sapling out of the stream and “heeled” it into a spot in a flower garden, telling the tree, “If you live, I’ll find a spot for you in the yard.”

Truthfully, I didn’t really think it would live. That’s quite a shock to go from constant water to Kansas clay!

I didn’t think about that sapling all winter long while it snuggled under a snowbank and put down roots. And then spring came, and I’m checking out the flower beds. That little cottonwood tree was alive and starting to put out leaves.

“You did it!” I said, “How amazing.”

I set about finding a spot where a tiny tree could grow and not get mowed off when grass-cutting season began.

Another wild idea came floating in. That little tree appeared the year my grandson was born, 2007, so how about making that “his tree.” That might be fun, and for sure it would guarantee that I’d watch out for the tree.

By the time my grandson, Dagfinnr, was 4, that little tree was taller than he was, and they were both old enough to be introduced.

“I think this is a “boy” cottonwood tree,” I told Dagfinnr. “I can’t be sure, yet, but if it is a boy, this is your tree.”

If it turned out to be a “girl,” I was going to pull it up, and find another tree. How cruel can I be?

In the summers, from then on, when Dagfinnr would come to visit, we’d measure the tree, and he would dutifully water it. Of course, the cottonwood loved it! Summer after summer and no seed appearing on our tree, I finally pronounced, “it’s a boy.”

About that time I discovered a book in the kids section of the library called “My Brother the Tree.” It’s about a family planting a commemorative tree for a baby boy who died and a remaining little boy in the family misunderstands the symbology, calling the tree “his brother.”

When I read the book to Dagfinnr, who’s an only child, he said to me, “Well, I could call this cottonwood my brother the tree, too.”

Every year the cottonwood has amazed us with its growth. It is tall, tall, TALL and flourishing! In the fall of the year I’d send a letter with a leaf inside.

“Your brother the tree is changing color,” I’d say.

And then this summer, in the tree’s 12th year, I see a flurry of cottonwood seeds in the breeze and all over the yard.

“Is that from Dagfinnr’s tree?” I wanted to know, horrified.

I’m immediately imagining having to tell my grandson that his brother the tree is in fact a girl.

And then I’m asking myself, would I really get rid of the tree if it wasn’t male? How archaic. Here I am frustrated by the gender of a perfectly good tree that in every other way is healthy. I decided I needed to do some research so I googled it: cottonwood tree gender.

Among other things, I discovered, There’s a lot of sex going on in plants that people don’t know about, according to John Kress, a research botanist and curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. And Kress thinks that sex switches (documented in maple trees) might be happening more frequently because of climate change.

I went out and checked as carefully as I could check a 50 foot tree and saw no sign of blossoms or seed pods. I’m guessing there’s a female Cottonwood down by the creek (could be his mother) and that’s where our flying seedlings came from in the first place.

Stranger things have happened, on another day in the country.

Last modified June 26, 2019

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