Thursday, November 12, 2009

Black Cottonwood in Autumn Gold

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.


  1. Really love the way you focus more on leaves. I am also a nature lover photographer and started my own business about tree service , you really got a great site.

  2. Thanks for bringing some attention to the often-over-looked cottonwood. I'm growing more and more fond of them through walks along the Columbia and other Northwest rivers. I particularly like how they smell in spring.

  3. I had no idea that Willows and Poplars are connected this way. I love trees so much. I've worked them into my felt, poetry, collage and canvas, but this festival of trees (which is new to me) opens my eyes to so much more. As the saying goes, you don't know what you don't know!

  4. The yellow leaves are so uplifting!

  5. It's neat to sit in the tropics and look at autumn colours without shivering!Thank you for injecting some gold into my day!

  6. I came via the Tree Festival...I too have begun learning about the trees in our area, but I live in NY..beautiful post..Michelle


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