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Missouri River Institute
The University of
South Dakota
414 E. Clark Street
Akeley-Lawrence
Science Center
Vermillion, SD 57069
Email: info@mnrrwatertrail.org

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of the
Sierra Club

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Plains cottonwood (Populus deltoids; Salicaceae, Willow Family)

Often towering over 100 feet tall, the cottonwood tree is the largest tree in the floodplain. Its thick gray bark is deeply furrowed; the deltoid leaves are 2 to 5 inches long and equally wide.  It stands out both in the woodland and in riparian literature.  It was the subject of frequent entries in the journals of Lewis and Clark and in today's riparian scientific literature. Native Americans striped the inner bark and fed it to horses and ate it themselves during the winter. Canoes were fashioned from the trunk, musical instruments from the branches, dyes from the buds.

 Its leaves, shiny and noisy in the wind, seem to be crying out for appreciation.  The saplings grow quickly on bare soil after floods and on sites where the bank has fallen into the water, thus stabilizing the erodable areas.  The saplings are eaten by many herbivores.  While living cottonwood serves as a wonderful nesting place for large birds, its dead branches are used as housing sites for cavity nesters.  When it falls into the water it serves as stable substrate for aquatic insects, its leaves feed the insects and these tiny aquatics fuel the rivers food chain.

Peachleaf Willow (Salix amygdaloides; Salicaceae, Willow Family)

This tree might grow to 50 feet, frequently with multiple trunks and nearly always with drooping branches. The narrow, tapering leaves are 1 to 3 inches long with white undersides.  It is the only native willow tree along the river.  It had multiple medicinal and ceremonial uses among the Native American tribes.

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana; Cupressaceae, Cypress Family)

This conical evergreen grows 10 to 20 feet tall.  In large trees the bark is red to gray and shreds. Its green, scale like blunt tipped leaves are decorated in the female by bluish round cones. Today it is a pest on the river islands.  Since the water levels often do not inundate the islands the cedar thrives.  Terns and plovers will not nest on islands heavily vegetated by cedar.  Due to lack of frequent fire cedars are also thriving on the floodplain, crowding out more desirable plants. The degraded river bed has lowered the ground water level and shallow rooted climax community trees, like cottonwood, are deprived of water. Cedars have a relatively deep root system; they thrive and crowd out many other plants.

Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia; Elaeagnaceae, Oleaster Family)

This is a small to medium size, irregularly shaped, deciduous tree, with alternate silver green, lance shaped leaves.  The branches may have thorns, among their small, sweet smelling, and yellow flowers.  In the fall the olive shaped, yellow-gray fruit appears. The fruit is eaten by birds but sometimes only partially digested; viable seed is spread through bird feces.  This native of southern Europe and western Asia spreads aggressively along streams and, since it uses large quantities of water, can choke out more desirable native species.