Gathering Cottonwoods

by Maria DeLaundreau, Minnesota GreenCorps

Last Wednesday I was part of a group of six people that sat in a restaurant in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, a city surrounded by a gorgeous landscape featuring rolling hills and the mighty Mississippi River. One asked the waitress, "What do you think we've done today?" The waitress eyed the group before guessing, "A teacher's retreat? That or a kung fu convention." Her wild guesses missed the mark, but the reality was about just as unusual as a kung fu convention in rural Wisconsin: collecting cottonwood tree cuttings for propagation in the spring.

That morning our group of three volunteers, two park rangers, and myself, a GreenCorps member, had driven to an Army Corps of Engineers cottonwood restoration site just outside of Maiden Rock where two Army Corps of Engineers employees, Bobby and Ray, were waiting for us. They told us that the place where we would be harvesting cottonwood cuttings used to be an agricultural field that was turned into a field of cottonwood saplings after it was acquired in 2008. The trees had done so well they needed to be thinned. That's where we came in. We helped them and our cottonwood project by cutting their saplings down and preparing them to be planted on Island 108 on the Mississippi River near Coldwater Spring and Lilydale Regional Park in St. Paul.

Bobby and Ray from the Army Corps of Engineers
The beautiful site featured a dense stand of cottonwood saplings
Ranger Nancy cutting saplings
Volunteers made quick work of cutting saplings
Soon we were enthusiastically harvesting saplings from the young forest and taking them to an open space where we broke into teams. Bobby led some people in removing branches and cutting the sapling stems into two foot sections. Ray showed me how to bundle up the cuttings tightly and make a nifty handle for easy carrying. 

Bundling the cuttings with expert advice from Ray
Removing branches and cutting stems
Bobby painting the tops of the bundled cuttings

Next, we were given the pro tip of painting the top of the cuttings, which will be important later this spring when they're planted. The top ends will produce the buds and branches needed to grow into a thriving tree and the lower part of the cutting that is placed in the ground will produce roots. Painting the top will make it easier to identify which end goes up.
Soon we had a truck bed filled with more than 600 cuttings, each of which will be planted as a part of the cottonwood restoration experiment in the spring. Using cuttings is an inexpensive option for organizations interested in floodplain forest restoration. This makes it an especially valuable option to research. 

I would like to offer an extra note of thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers for their expertise and time, in addition to giving us access to their cottonwood field. What a great resource and terrific partnership. Special thanks also to our fabulous volunteers that came along! We will be advertising more volunteer opportunities in the spring when we are ready to plant the cuttings and subsequently monitor their success. Keep your eyes peeled for upcoming events on our events calender or email Anna Waugh at to sign up for our volunteer email list.

We accomplished great work thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers and our volunteers