Trees belonging to the oak, walnut, birch, olive, maple, rose and elm families exist in Kansas. The eastern cottonwood, a tree capable of growing to great sizes, is the official state tree of Kansas, designated as such by the legislature in 1937. The only evergreen tree in Kansas, the eastern red cedar, is an important species for the state’s wildlife. The redbud brings color to Kansas as winter ends.
The eastern cottonwood is a tree that the early pioneers welcomed the sight of, as it generally meant that water was close by. The Great Plains Nature Center website states that cottonwoods resist the frequent wildfires sparked by lightning on the Great Plains due to their thick bark and by growing near streams and rivers.
A species capable of living well over 100 years, the eastern cottonwood can be 100 feet tall with a trunk 5 feet wide. The leaves are from 4 to 6 inches long and triangular, with long petioles (stems) that cause them to tremble in the Kansas breezes.
Cottonwoods are male or female; the male trees pollinate the female flowers, which in turn change to long, drooping clusters of seedpods. These pods hold the puffy white seeds that float away in the wind when the pods open—this is the “cotton” of cottonwood. The leaves turn yellow in fall. The wood usually weakens as the tree matures, with the prairie weather tearing off branches, providing hollow living quarters for mammals like the opossum and raccoon.
Eastern Red Cedar
The eastern red cedar is actually a member of the Juniper family. It has a wide distribution over much of the eastern two-thirds of the nation. Eastern red cedar in Kansas is a standout in winter, as it is the only green tree in the stark landscape. As such, it gives food and shelter to a multitude of bird species. Female red cedars produce a berry-like cone that turns blue when ripe; birds will use it as a source of nutrition when the weather gets cold.
The eastern red cedar grows from 40 to 50 feet tall in good soil and has a pyramidal shape. The foliage is scale-like and a blue-green color. The bark easily peels off the tree in strips and the red wood, which gives the tree its name, is aromatic and valued for use in cedar chests.
The redbud tree brings vibrant color to Kansas woodland borders in the spring. By April, the pink-purple flowers emerge, preceding the leaves and developing all along the lengths of the tree’s limbs. Redbud leaves, shaped like hearts, are from 3 to 5 inches long. The leaves are shiny dark green and turn yellow-green in autumn. The redbud seedpods, about 2 to 3 inches long, are edible when cooked.
The redbud grows in the eastern third of Kansas and attains heights of up to 50 feet if growing out in open spaces. The species has value as an ornamental tree because of its flowers and leaves. Several hybrids exist, such as the Silver Cloud type, which has handsome variegated leaves. Redbuds are what botanists describe as understory species, able to grow beneath larger trees in their shade.
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