On the care of cottonwood: tending and attending to our sentinel trees

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Mamchur, Lindsay
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This is a project devoted to a tree. The tree is the Plains cottonwood, known for its superlative growth rate, size, and longevity in the Great Plains. Well attuned to local growing conditions, cottonwood are among the tree species that define Winnipeg, a city of 750,000 people located in Manitoba, Canada. I call these trees sentinels because those that reach maturity witness much change in their 200+ year lifespan. Winnipeg’s urban cottonwood population is composed of mature declining trees; a small number of planted trees; and self-seeded trees growing in leftover land, unlikely to survive to middle age. The mature declining class is the most ecologically, spatially, and, I argue, culturally significant of the population. As things are, no near-future population of mature cottonwood will be as numerous or widespread. Shifts in the regional hydrological system and in patterns of human settlement and interaction result in fewer opportunities for natural cottonwood propagation. This, coupled with their largeness, perceived ill-suitedness for urban spaces and enduring image as a seedy, short-lived nuisance tree, has led to chronic underplanting. What, then, I see as a design response is clear: plant more cottonwood. But rather than simply plant trees, I propose establishing distinct cottonwood configurations that we can tend and attend to over time as we do our current sentinels and in new ways that celebrate the tree, our shared histories, and the processes critical to a cottonwood’s lifecycle, being, and meaning.
landscape architecture, Plains cottonwood, cottonwood trees, cottonwood decline, cottonwood regeneration, urban forest, Winnipeg