Getting lost in the cottonwoods

Ancient cottonwoods, British Columbia (Photo by NCC)

Ancient cottonwoods, British Columbia (Photo by NCC)

August 7, 2017 | by Lyndon Penner

As far as trees go, cottonwoods are not long-lived. While an oak might live for a few centuries, cottonwoods (and their kin — poplars and aspens) don’t fare as well. Fast-growing and quick to establish, 60 to 80 years is a long life for them. On rare occasions, a tree may live as long as a century or more.

A 250-year-old cottonwood grove in Idaho was the world’s oldest example of these trees, until the early 2000s. That’s when a grove of cottonwoods near Fernie, British Columbia, was discovered —  several trees were as much as 400 years old. Ideal moisture, fertile soil and protection from wind and fire factored into their longevity.

I was aware of cottonwood trees for more than a decade before finally venturing out to see them for myself. On a lovely summer day in August, I drove west from my home in Lethbridge, Alberta, to Fernie, specifically to visit them, and I wasn’t disappointed. These beautiful, ancient giants were easy to locate and their gorgeous riparian (riverbank) home feels holy and sacred. On this quiet summer day, these trees in their sanctuary made me feel deeply connected with nature, and humbled by the things they have witnessed in their lifetime. They were present for the industrial revolution. They were alive and well when Shakespeare was writing his plays and Monet was painting. They saw the Ktunaxa First Nations peoples as they travelled to the Rocky Mountains to hunt bison. How extraordinary that these living trees have been here this whole time. Perhaps even more extraordinary is that they have been conserved!

A very tall cottonwood tree (Photo by Lyndon Penner)

A very tall cottonwood tree (Photo by Lyndon Penner)

It’s hard to believe that something as immense as these trees could be so graceful and beautiful. They are enormous, but elegant, and the wind sweeping through their canopies is as much of a song as anything you could wish for. Their gnarled bark and deeply corrugated trunks stand firm and steady, while their dancing leaves create the most exquisite patterns on the forest floor as the light moves between them. What a thing to see and feel!

As a naturalist and a gardener, I have always felt a strong connection with trees, and as a Canadian, I have also felt a deep connection with the land where I live. I think it’s profound and wonderful that the oldest cottonwoods in the world can be found right here at home. It’s absolutely terrific that the city of Fernie — perhaps better known as an adventure destination and ski town in southeastern BC — has an outstanding and remarkable natural attraction such as this. I have made the Ancient Cottonwood Trail just down the highway from Fernie a “must-stop” on any drive west that I do, and I have been pleased to encourage others to do the same.

Cottonwood mountains and Elk River, BC (Photo by Steve Short)

Cottonwood mountains and Elk River, BC (Photo by Steve Short)

The tranquil setting where the elderly cottonwoods live is also home to fall blooming asters, the beautiful (but rather unfriendly due to its thorns) devil’s club and gorgeous carpets of oak fern. Lady ferns and mosses have seductively draped themselves over the fallen logs and branches. Walking in here feels like stepping into a forgotten world.

What must Canada have been like when this forest was young and roads and railways didn’t yet connect across our great land? How did these immense trees remain hidden for so long, and how much longer will they survive? These are questions that even the botanists can’t answer, and in a world of instant gratification and immediate answers, it’s rather wonderful to stand in this secluded place, listening to birds and pondering these things.

It’s not an experience you can really have anywhere else. The cottonwoods of Fernie are definitely worth the drive.

Ancient Cottonwood Trail is one of the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s properties featured in Nature Destinations, a program that invites you to take a journey through some of the greatest examples of our country’s natural areas and to connect with nature. Visit

Lyndon Penner (Photo courtesy Lyndon Penner)

About the Author

Lyndon Penner is a landscape designer, gardener and best selling author from Alberta.

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