Tag Archive: tree


cottonwoods fallen budsCottonwoods seem to get a whole lot of bad press and not enough praise.  As soon as the fluff starts to fly in late spring/ early summer people seem to want to gripe about it. Oh sure, some do enjoy the warm season snow, delicate as goosedown, swirling, lofting and icing the sidewalks. It’s a little magical when the flurries are a-fly. I promise  it is not making you sneeze, it’s just what you see in front of you while other tree and grass pollens play merry hell with your sinuses. Cottonwood pollen is released long before the flurf flies- that’s actually the mature seed with a silken sail attached.

There’s also the abundant branch shedding, of course.  It’s not a tree for the obsessively tidy. It’s branching is abundant, even shaggy, and the wood snaps easily in high winds, leading to littered landscapes.  (But if you have a chipper, or are a wizard with the shears, lots of lovely ramial wood chips for soil improvement.)  It rots quickly and also makes great mushroom logs if you have larger diameter fallen branches to dispose of.

I notice when I look up cottonwood trees, everyone writes as if the local tree is ‘THE’ cottonwood.  In fact, it’s a large number of populus that people call “Cottonwood”. In the West coast of North America, my ‘hood, it’s Populus trichocarpa. Most widely distributed is Populus tremuloides (mainly Canada, but found as far south as central Mexico.) Populus deltoides mainly from the central and East USA, but a bit into the Southern Canadian prairies. Populus grandidentata in the East in a swoosh from the Great Lakes to the coast. There’s a whack of them. If you care to make a precise ID of your particular poplar (yes, I also mean cottonwood)- check the ranges. Google ‘Populus’ with your state or province and you should be able to figure out which one you’re looking at. It also hybridizes easily where ranges intersect- just to throw a curveball into your I.D.  It’s not limited to the Americas either- Europe and Asia have plenty of poplars, too.

All varieties can be used in much the same way, though, and while one variety might be medicinally superior, I don’t know which. I’d need a lab and USDA level access to fresh samples. The spring bud resin of any can be used to make a soothing anti-infammatory salve.  Also called Balm of Gilead, use of cottonwood bud salve is very old and very widespread- you can find it in Culpeper’s Compleat Herbal, Russian formulas using bear grease, the Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest-essentially, everybody who has had access figured out this tree’s resin was a storehouse of medicinal power. Collecting windblown buds in early spring seems the epitome of ethical wildcrafting!cottonwood buds

Poplars grow fast. I guess you might need to, when your substrate is quite likely to shift without the stabilizing influence of your roots. They prefer moist soils, rivers and lakes in most varieties, but definitely abundant surface moisture when the seeds sprout, since they are viable only for a short time.  Water probably distributes as much seed and live material as the air filled with ‘snow’. My nearby Fraser River has large islands in the middle of it essentially made of cottonwoods alone, catching the suspended silt and sand. They shift position stealthily on dark nights…. well, maybe not that fast, but they do creep around. Cottonwood roots easily from dropped branches in spring, and sprouts vigorously from deer and beaver-girdled young trees, it’s a very vigorously alive tree.  Propagation is ridiculously simple.  A tilted log may become a mother of thousands.

The classic river or lakeside profile of the local cottonwood is crowded, shaggy, swoopy- classic cottonwood profilethe branches seem to sag under their own weight, and then optimistically rise up at the tips, almost making an ‘s’ with longer branches. When older, trunks grey and fissure, growing corky. When young they grow in gregarious groups, but are very shade intolerant trees, so tend to grow in groups of similar age.  Young seedlings soon expire in the heavy shade of abundant parent trees.

Cottonwoods can live a few hundred years- as much as 400, but usually don’t.  Typically cottonwoods succumb to rot, or undermining by water, or some other accident at 70-100. Living on riverbanks can be precarious.  They often break records for girth within their span, however.  The largest trees in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan are cottonwoods.

Early settlers would keep an eye out for cottonwood when travelling, as it’s presence indicated water.  They made frequent and widespread use of the fast growing tree for windbreaks, fenceposts, firewood and basketry. Wherever cottonwood is found, the people living among them have a history of use.  The Salish called it ‘The Tree of Life’, the Mojave people used it for practically everything one might use a tree for, the Hopi carved the roots into Kachina dolls. It’s a symbol of benevolent spirits and abundant life wherever it grows. The cambium is edible, and even tasty when the down is flying.cottonwoods branchy br

Other Uses

The wood of the tree itself isn’t as soft as the breakable branches might imply, and makes a very serviceable lumber. It’s fairly soft for making furniture with but oiling it helps prevent scratching and denting, and using it for things like trim or moldings is just fine. Since it grows so fast, that makes it quite a good choice for agroforestry projects. The trees can be coppiced for animal fodder. The wood holds inks unusually well, and makes excellent boxes and baskets, cut thin. Approved by the FDA for food containers and very workable, cottonwood also makes good bowls and cups. It’s light and ideal for models and children’s toys. As firewood it makes 16.8 million BTU’s per cord- not great, actually-but abundant! Cottonwood that has fallen as a result of rot smells a little funky though, so you might want to save that for outdoor fires.

Often thought of as a ‘waste’ tree, cottonwoods are in fact a storehouse of medicine, fast wood, wildlife support and great permaculture potential. See if you can find some at a river near you!

Fun Fact: Pando is a clonal colony of Populus tremuloides in Utah so big that it’s the heaviest (and at an estimated 80,000 years, one of the oldest) known organism.

This year the weather seems to be putting those of us in the Pacific Northwest in our place.  Normally, it’s we who are envied and hated in February or March, lording it over the rest of the latitude and parading about in shorts and sandals.  Well, not so this year. It’s been that chill-to-the-bone 2 degrees over to 2 degrees under sort of wet torture and I tell you, I can’t wait until it’s over with. Some plants have made it through surprisingly well despite the cold, since it hasn’t been TOO cold- like Onions.  I try to do something that is in evidence in the garden or at least soon will be, and one of the few things that seems to be growing in spite of the slush and hail is the onions.  Chives are well up, obviously making good time on the rare days it goes above 6 degrees, the red and Spanish Onions are making firm advances, and The Walking Onions never went away.

If you’ve never heard of Walking Onion, you may have heard another name for it instead.  It may masquerade as Egyptian Onion, Tree Onion, Winter Onion, or Topset Onion, depending on who you ask. Even the latin binomials can get you into trouble- you might find it as allium cepa var. proliferum, var. viviparum, var. bulbiferum…whatever you prefer to call it, genomic evidence has conclusively shown that they are a hybrid of the common onion (A. cepa) and the Welsh onion(A. fistulosum). Personally, that’s all I really need to know- there’s no mistaking it when you see it!

The history of this onion is a bit muddled with heresay and myth, as any plant with a long and convoluted journey will be.  Word has it that the name ‘Egyptian Onion’ actually originated with the gypsies that were said to have transported across Europe with them, not necessarily with the country of Egypt.  Egyptians definitely had the common onion, A.cepa, but the cross of A. fistulosum comes out of Asia.  Just to really mess you up, the Welsh Onion (A. fistulosa) isn’t Welsh at all. “Welsh” preserves the original meaning of the Old English word “welisc”, or Old German “welsche”, meaning “foreign”. To confuse the issue even further, a specimen of this unique onion variety came to the attention of Frenchman Jacques Dalechamp, in his country in 1587. I have to assume this means it was noted in his magnum opus,  Historia generalis plantarum which listed 2731 plants from his personal experience, near Lyon in France. This variety was ‘officially’ introduced into Great Britain in 1820 from Canada. Which is odd considering the French obviously knew about it more than 200 years before that.  Historians have been puzzled to see the tree onion, along with the Welsh onion, growing wild in North America. I’ve even seen claims that it originated here-probably due to garden escapees, since neither parent plant is native to North America.  Here’s my own pet theory: this hybrid onion was likely in common use by the time the Romans came to Britain, since one parent is from the Middle East, and one from Asia- it seems very likely to me that, since the common Roman did eat plenty of onions and Rome itself being a nexus of trade for Europe, the cross may have occurred during that period. Onions being an easily packed and stored staple, it would have been transported everywhere the Roman army marched, which covers a lot of ground. From Spain, Chris Columbus transported onions to Haiti in 1492-93. Subsequent settlements brought them over again -according to diaries of colonists, bulb onions were planted as soon as the Pilgrim fathers could clear the land in 1648. They don’t mention which onions, of course, but the hybrid vigor and easy transport of bulblets from the Walking Onion make it a likely candidate. Spreading from there it could have been rediscovered inCanada and brought toBritain once again. The Walking Onion has almost literally walked it’s way around the world.

The name ‘Walking Onion” comes from its habit of bending over with the weight of the bulblets at the top which then root and form new plants.  It can be so funky looking, sometimes with onions growing yet smaller onions, and those growing yet smaller ones out of that, all curling crazily every which way- you might want it as a curiosity even if you hate onions. Walking Onions are a strongly flavoured onion variety, but the bulbs, greens, and bulblets can all be eaten, and the bulblets are particularly nice to use for pickling or like shallots. This onion is very cold hardy and in milder climates can be picked most of the year (Although in late summer it generally dies down until the weather gets cooler, only a few weeks break.) In areas with more severe winters it could be grown under row covers to prolong the harvest, otherwise it’s one of the first things to make an appearance in the spring garden. These Onions can survive freezing cold winters with temperatures plummeting well below-24°F! They are hardy to zone 3.

Growing Some

Onions-any onions-can be heavy feeders in the garden, although they will survive in harsh conditions with less than ideal soil, you certainly won’t get as much from them that way.  Rich garden soil with plenty of organic matter worked into it and good drainage with plenty of sun exposure is, as usual, the key to getting lots of large, quality vegetables or bulbs.  Onions are perfect for tucking into the garden when you harvest something else, it’s easy to keep some extra sets (bulblets) in the shed to fill in gaps.  (I’ve stored these onions as sets for 2+ years, much longer than you’re supposed to, and they grew just fine when planted, finally.)  Onions-all onions-are great companions for a wide range of plants.  Roses may love garlic, but they love onions too, planting some in your rose garden may increase the perfume, (alliums concentrate sulphur and sulphur improves rose fragrance,) ward off aphid infestations and repel the dreaded black spot.  Actually, if you really want to combat fungal diseases like powdery mildew and black spot, you’re best off chopping up an onion and soaking it in water overnight, adding a drop of mild soap, then spraying the leaves with it directly.  The mild sulphur in the mix is fungicidal and antibacterial and in my experience, works very well.  Its very confusing odour plays insects for fools, and may help protect other crops from routine infestations. Onions partner well with fruit trees, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, broccoli and other brassicas, and carrots.  They don’t grow well with legumes or parsley.

Getting Some

Now here’s the tricky part.  I’ve never seen Walking Onion in a regular garden center.  Usually even the fancy types are not labelled well, even in a fancy full color package where you’d expect it.  (Like the ‘red’ garlic I was looking at-seriously?  There’s maybe a hundred types of red garlic-thanks a lot~!) It can be ordered off the web, although you will get bulblets and never seeds, since it rarely sets seed at all.  This is an ideal plant to find at a plant trade or swap session, looking in yards and asking nicely for a handful of sets, or asking around your gardening friends.  So get out there and talk to someone who loves their onions.