What Good's a Cottonwood?
My David has never met a tree he didn’t love. It probably goes back to his first job here in North Idaho. Hanging out in front of the old Pasttime on First Ave., on what was not only his first day in town, but his 21st birthday, he was hired by a guy to help plant trees in the forest. His love for trees is so pure, it’s like he’s a one-man, tree-rescue band.
A young tree broken in half? He’s saved it by scotch-taping the tree back together. (This is a true thing.) Broken or simply growing in the wrong place, any tree is safe once David learns of its plight.
I, on the other hand... Well, I like trees just as much as almost anyone here in North Idaho, but Cottonwoods are the bane of my existence. They grow like weeds in my yard and I spend much of the summer trying to mow down all the little new Cottonwoods that are trying to take over, just like those shown to the right in this picture. Don’t tell David, okay?
As is also shown in this picture, I haven’t always been diligent in my Cottonwood removal, so several enormous specimens are growing in on my property, including one that’s now forcing me to learn about how to repair foundations.
If that’s not bad enough, Cottonwoods bite as firewood, given their low BTU content, and they’re not even worth anything as timber.
So what’s good about a Cottonwood, anyway, and why are they considered to be one of the most important wildlife trees around?
Well, Cottonwoods (the western Cottonwood like what is growing at my place), love a high water content in the soil. If you see Cottonwoods growing, you can be pretty sure there’s readily available water close by. So the first benefit of a Cottonwood is simply what it tells you about your property.
Cottonwoods are also speedy growers—they can, in fact, grow as much as 7 feet in a single year’s time—the teenage boys of the tree world, if you will. If you’re looking for trees that will look well established in a short period of time, a Cottonwood is not a bad way to go.
Primarily, however, Cottonwoods are the Granny’s Buffet of the wildlife world. Elk, deer, rabbits, beaver, ruffed grouse... a plethora of wildlife find the Cottonwood to be a favored dinner food. In fact, with terminal buds that survive throughout the winter, some birds can survive the season thanks simply to one tree, which provides both bed and board.
But it’s not just for eating: many varieties of birds find the Cottonwood makes a lovely home. Eagles, osprey, owls, turkeys and hawks perceive the Cottonwood to be a felicitous nesting place.
Cottonwoods, which can live over 100 years, provide wonderful southern shade during the summer, while dropping copious leaves to feed your compost pile in fall, and leaving that precious winter sunshine full room to brighten your days. Closely related to Aspens, their leaves make a wonderful noise in wind, though they do tend to easily drop branches in even the mildest of storms. And each spring, as they seek to reproduce, you’re gifted with the delightful sight of Cottonwood “snow” floating through the air. (If you happen to sneeze a lot when the Cottonwoods are snowing, don’t blame the tree. Cottonwood seedlings are too big to cause allergies via the nose, and they are not pollen. Your sneezing likely indicates an allergy to grass pollens.)
If you’re looking for a deciduous tree that grows easily, quickly, and serves as first-rate wildlife habitat, it’s hard to go wrong with the prolific Cottonwood. Don’t plant them close to buildings, as they have an extensive root system that (I swear), seems to have an affinity for destroying man-made structures like foundations and septic systems. And besides, there’s that ‘dropping branches’ issue to consider. But on the outskirts of your property, a 100-plus foot tall Cottonwood or two may be just the ticket for your summertime shade.
But stay on top of the seedlings; they’ll be tree-sized before you know it.