Nature Alert: Black Cottonwood

Here in the Valley – between bouts of rain – the sun has been shining, as fluffy, white clouds pass overhead. The trees are freshly-leaved, and the grass is green and growing inches by the minute. Some wildflowers have already bloomed, while others are on their way. Dare I say it – it almost feels like a normal spring season is upon us.   

Of course, that is until I see the other masked faces out enjoying the sun, or catch a glimpse of the news on my phone, remembering all is not well with the world. But, let’s not go there for a moment – let’s look back on those fluffy clouds. Just before the child in me begins pondering what animals fit the cloud formations, something else white and fluffy comes into view: the cottony seeds of Cottonwood trees.   

More specifically, these are the reproductive products of Black Cottonwood, Populus balsamifera ssp. Trichocarpa. Balsamifera means balsam, or aromatic resin-bearing. Trichocarpa refers to hairy fruits or fluffy seeds, according to the Native Plants PNW Encyclopedia.   

Black Cottonwoods bloom anywhere from early March to June, and their seeds ripen from late May to July—making now primetime for the wind and water-driven dispersal of these allergy-inducing fluffballs.   

Cottonwoods are pretty neat for reasons besides this snowy suffer-fest they cause each year. For one thing, they grow extremely fast. In the best conditions, they can grow several feet a year. They usually max out around 150 feet high, making them the tallest deciduous tree in the Northwest, and often don’t lag far behind their coniferous forest counterparts.   

Well-adapted to the dynamic nature of the Willamette River floodplains, the fast growth of Cottonwoods makes them an awesome tool in local streamside restoration projects. Plus, once established, they can provide important habitat benefits to fish and wildlife for the entirety of their 200-300-year lifespan.   

Given that Corvallis-area parks, trails, and natural areas are increasingly opening back up, one can now more easily enjoy the shade and grandeur of our local Cottonwood trees. The riverside location and wide berths of trails in the Crystal Lake-Willamette Park complex make an especially compelling case for such an outing. So, grab your mask, warm-up your 6-ft side hop, and don’t forget your allergy eye drops, as you embark to bear witness to this natural wonder.    

By Ari Blatt