Look up – There could be a missile up there!


By Greg Illes
Cottonwood trees are rugged-looking, charming and (when they’re green) beautiful in all the ways that trees can be beautiful. But they have a dark side….

Cottonwoods are not particularly long-lived, typically reaching 50-100 years of age. Some species last a bit longer, but the general trend is for “rapid turnover.” Out here in the West, the Kelly-green foliage is easily used to spot desert drainages, often when there’s no surface water present. They’re also very common in creekside and lakeside campgrounds, and that is where their more-evil character sometimes presents itself.

Normally a fairly brittle tree, the cottonwood becomes even more so when it dies. Even modest windstorms can break off limbs, and at times really large limbs, which crash down on whatever has the bad luck to be waiting below. Here’s a beefy ten-foot log lying in our camp near Navajo Lake.

Which brings up a (true) story to tell around the campfire.

One day out in New Mexico, we learned of a nearby camp with a storied history. It seems that a man and his son every year made a family pilgrimage to that camp, for a week of loving companionship, fishing and general hanging around the lakeside wooded camp. That year was special – the 20th anniversary of their family camp outing. They had some minor issues getting away from home, and they arrived at their camp a day late. When they went to pitch their tent, they were astounded to find a massive cottonwood branch, some 18″ in diameter and almost 20 feet long, lying across the tent pad. It had fallen there the previous night, around 2 a.m., according to many campers who had heard the noise.

There are two morals to this story:
1. When your number is not up, well, it’s not up. Be thankful, every day.
2. Look up before you settle into camp. There may be a missile up there.

Greg Illes is a retired systems engineer who loves thinking up RV upgrades and modifications. When he’s not working on his motorhome, he’s traveling in it. You can follow his excellent blog at www.divver-city.com/blog

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1 year ago

Here in the southeast it is the chinaberry tree that is brittle even when alive. Also its berries can make birds drunk.

1 year ago

Birch tree groves are lovely but the trees can be unstable. Not called widow-makers for nothing. The tops rot and can fall, even with a gentle wind let alone anything stronger. Take care – look up.

Tommy Molnar
1 year ago

When we bought our house (over 30 years ago – we don’t move often . . .), the back yard had three huge cottonwoods already growing there. They offered much appreciated shade in the summer. They also filled the yard with blossoms in spring, and ‘cotton’ in fall. We grew to hate them. During the winter, however, they became snow laden and we worried about this all the time. Finally one winter, a large branch broke off and fell on the power line. Shortening the story, the power company came out and removed the offending branch (about 12″ in diameter!), and come that spring we paid the big bucks and had all three trees removed. Best thing we ever did. Cottonwoods are horrible!

1 year ago
Reply to  Tommy Molnar

Actually, I have another beef with cottonwoods — right in the name. There are two large mature trees in the woods around my yard, and they will drop enough “fluff” that my lawn goes white, two inches deep with occasional “drifts.” If it hasn’t rained to mat it down, my own tractor will set the extremely flammable fluff on fire. Usually it’s smaller patches that burn out in a couple feet intermittently, but at least once I’ve had to jump off the tractor and hose a 50′ circle to contain the spreading ring-o-fire. It burns better than you’d believe!

1 year ago

I travel with a pole-saw, bow-saw and 30′ telescoping pole at all times. Not that I expect to have to trim trees, but I end up having to far more often than I’ll admit. 90% of that “need” time, I’ll ask any relevant authority for permission first, but where I’ve paid for a trailer site, I don’t really mind “helpfully” trimming any branches that enter my 12Wx40Lx12H pad. On occasion, amusingly, I’ve had less-equipped camphosts ask to borrow my saws. When conserving trees, I’ve had skylights poked out and the roof hammered by bouncing branches.

I also have a bad tendency to fly my model helicopters into trees, so having a hook on telescoping pole is useful for more than treework.

1 year ago

I’ve also heard these called ‘widow makers’.

1 year ago
Reply to  Croscwa

“Widow makers” are more commonly DETACHED dead branches or pieces of other trees caught in the target tree a lumberjack is working on. The difference being they are free to move with even mild disturbance. Sometimes people include a “deadhead” in the category, where only the top of the target tree is dead and therefore unexpectedly brittle compared to the live trunk being cut. Cottonwoods are particularly evil because they are brittle even when alive, and dang heavy!

But yes, the concept is the same. At some point, a very large piece of wood will fall unexpectedly and drive your forehead through your ankles. Game Over.