It’s taken me a few years to identify the Black cottonwood tree (Populus balsamifera spp. trichocarpa), also known as the Balsam poplar or Tacamahacca.
Shown here in its autumn glory of brilliant yellow, the Black cottonwood bears dark, green, glossy leaves in summer. I first began to notice these trees as small saplings with large, sticky buds. They seemed to disappear among the alders and evergreens in the summer, but in the winter and spring they stick out as strange, naked twigs... with big buds.
It wasn’t until the emergent individuals in our yard grew tall (7-8 meters among our tallest) and strong (on the fruits of the septic tank drain field) when I realized they might be related to poplars. Why? Because the leaves have a wonderful back-and-forth flutter in the wind, much like an aspen. They're especially audible with a nice summer breeze.
Poplar, aspen, cottonwood, and willow trees are all classified in the willow family, Salicaceae. My real breakthrough in identifying this tree came not from The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees (whose many varieties daunted me) but from my newest book: Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast.
Not only does this book cover hundreds of plants which I recognize by sight and smell, but it also includes detailed descriptions for each plant beyond physiology and identification. According to Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, the gum, leaves, inner bark, and other parts of the Black cottonwood tree have traditionally been used in food, medicine and craft by many Native American people from this region.
I purchased Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast when I was buying the Washington and Oregon Recreational Pass including the America the Beautiful: National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass. I stocked up on these critical tools for my November West Coast road trip, for which I will be departing shortly. Stay tuned for tree blogging from Washington, Oregon, and California.