Black Cottonwood: balm or bomb?

Black Cottonwood (Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa)

Is the silent juggernaut over? Is the Cottonwood bombing at an end? Can we get back to tending our fields and flocks again? For days now we have been under attack by the annual Cottonwood blizzard. The Cottonwood trees have unleashed wisps of snow-flake-like fluff by the tens of thousands on our poor nursery plants. Trapped in their little pots, nowhere to go, surrounded by bare soil, our chlorophyll-babies are defenseless against the relentless germinating power of a pioneer species seeking new horizons, new places to plant itself. Though we do grow some to be planted in restoration projects, we don’t really appreciate 30 extra trees in every pot in the nursery!*

Black Cottonwood is one of those native plants that doesn’t get much respect. “Junk tree” is what loggers call it. It isn’t even any good as firewood; the water content is so high that it barely cures enough to provide a few BTUs on a winter’s day. It is widely known as a “hazard tree” because of the huge branches that it occasionally sheds. It is not a tree that you’d want close to a house; it gets huge, and when it falls, its great weight can slice a house in two. So we should respect THAT if nothing else!

At the beginning of its life cycle, Cottonwood fluff released by full-grown trees – each snowflake-like poof carrying a tiny ivory seed – lands everywhere and immediately sprouts little cottonwood trees. As a tree matures, it regularly sheds branches, which often stab into the ground, sprout roots and grow new trees.

A few words on its behalf: Cottonwood grows in moist to wet conditions. It stabilizes shorelines and shades streams to the benefit of the creatures that live in them. It is a pioneer species, which means that after some kind of disturbance, say forest fire, clearing, or logging, its seeds are one of the first species to grow on the exposed soil. And they grow quickly, covering up the scars that the disturbance caused . Cottonwood consists of a great amount of biomass – leaves, constantly shed twigs and branches. Eventually the huge bulk of the whole  100-150’ tall tree – enriches the soil beneath, feeding the next plants in the line of succession. Cottonwoods that fall into streams create eddies and backwaters and shelter for fish. While it is standing, its branches provide great habitat for birds. Red-tailed Hawks, Bald Eagles and owls sit on branches near the top of the tree, surveying the countryside in search of dinner. Its crown is a favorite place for Red-tailed Hawks to nest. Deteriorating old trees and snags provide nesting cavities for birds and small mammals such as Douglas Squirrels.

In the spring, the air near Cottonwoods smells wonderful from the sticky, fragrant resin on the orange leaf buds. The resin has an antiseptic quality that Native Americans discovered. I know someone who in early spring painstakingly gathers the buds after they pop off the tree’s newly expanding leaves and makes a sweet-smelling hand lotion.

Black cottonwoods are strikingly beautiful – dark trunks and branches contrast with the brilliant green of spring leaves. The leathery, nearly heart-shaped leaves have pale, silvery undersides. In the fall the leaves turn yellow-gold on the top surface, so they really are silver and gold.

One of the most beautiful spring or fall sights which I get a chance to see on a semi-regular basis: Golden late afternoon sun sets the Cottonwoods aglow against a backdrop of dark storm clouds. The breeze from coming rain flutters the leaves making them shimmer and flash.

Next to the nursery is a field where an old Cottonwood stands. My father once told me that his mother planted it as a seedling (it probably sprouted in her flower garden!). She called it a Balm-of-Gilead Tree.




*We do not use “pre-emergent” herbicide, which many nurseries apply to prevent weed seeds from germinating.

Devil’s Club – worthy of primal contemplation

This morning, Tyrannosaurus Gus (the dog) and his people (Brian and I) enact our usual morning ritual. For me, this requires oatmeal. The ritual for Brian includes coffee in the yard at the crack of dawn. The ceremony for Gus involves supplicating in fetal position, waiting for the food dish to appear in its proper place. As the rite advances, the dog rings a bell on the back door. The proper response is for either human to clip his leash on and take him outside to do his business. Gus graces the cooperating human with a walk around the yard, the dog on alert for night-deposited goodies from neighbor cats or raccoons. It’s my turn today and I use this tour to admire Brian’s handiwork: a gorgeous habitat for birds, insects, gray squirrels (booooo) and people. I am very fortunate to live with a landscape designer/contractor who loves his work! (Brian Bodenbach, Biosphere Company)

His design philosophy calls for a foundation of native plants, augmented by a select assortment of compatible non-natives. When we bought our house 13 years ago, the large yard was mostly lawn. An ever-evolving work in progress, it now includes beautiful combinations of native and non-native plants.

While the dog takes me around the yard, we pause at my favorite station – under the apple tree facing our “forest”, where about five years ago, Brian planted a small – less than one foot tall – Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus). It is now taller than me, with several side branches. He planted Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum) at its base, with Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum), Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium dryopteris), a purple-flowered variety of Hellebore (non-native) and a Hosta (Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ – non-native) with big, blue-gray leaves beside it, creating a pleasing yet primal scene.

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Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus) with Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum) and Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum)

Devil’s Club was a mythic shrub to be feared in my childhood – I was warned to watch out for its piercing prickles. And the name alone was scary. But now, I love its prehistorically huge leaves and thorny fierceness. The large red seeds that replace its creamy-white flowers are stunning. Though I think most Northwesterners associate it with swampy forests, it grows other places as well; I see it on shady hillsides, perhaps where water seeps just under the surface. It does well in the heavy, silty soil in our yard, which tends to hold moisture. Its roots are valued by herbalists for their therapeutic qualities. It is rhizomatous, over time forming a loose grove of often-lanky plants. It loses its leaves in the winter, leaving a knob on the top of the stem where the next spring’s leaves will emerge. With its tall, stickery stems, it stands with its comrades like sentinels, guarding the entrance to … what? The Garden of Eden? A time-travel portal to the Mesozoic Era?

I ponder these possibilities while keeping a tight grip on Gus’ leash, lest he satisfy his primal appetite for cat poop. Then we turn back toward the house to prepare for the rest of this day’s journey.

Bloomers for Dear Mamά!

A few perennials that are now in bloom:

Great Camas (Camassia leichtlinii)

Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)

Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana)

Inside-out Flower (Vancouveria hexandra)

Great Camas (Camassia leichtlinii)

  • Blue or purple star-shaped flowers.
  • Grows from an edible bulb.
  • Bright shade to full sun.
  • Can handle soggy soil in winter as long as it dries out in the summer.
  • A recent customer declared the flowers of Great Camas “other-worldly”!

Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

  • Red-and-yellow flowers.
  • Blossoms stand higher than the foliage, up to 3 ½’ high.
  • Full sun to partial shade; moist soil.

 Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)

  • Flowers are light to dark pink, fern-like foliage
  • Attractive deciduous groundcover 1-2 feet tall.
  • Bright shade, moist to fairly dry.

 Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana)

  • Flowers white to light pink, clover-like foliage approximately one foot tall.
  • Very moist to very dry, but happily, rampantly spreads in moist conditions.
  • Full shade.

 Inside-out Flower, Duck’s Foot (Vancouveria hexandra)

  • Woodland groundcover about 1’ tall.
  • Slightly taller small nodding white flowers whose curved petals are folded backwards.
  • Irregularly rounded small leaves (shaped like a duck’s foot) — delicate, interesting texture.
  • Moist to dry conditions; partial to full shade