Monday, July 15, 2013

Cottonwoods ? Give me one of those "cottonless" Cottonwoods over a Fremont any day!

This was the usual attitude I found when discussing plants in landscapes up in Anza California by new land owners moving up from the cities. People in general by their very Nature are impatient when it comes to landscaping and they want instant landscapes NOW, not what they perceive as being years or decades on down the road. Species of Populus are widely used in landscapes – especially when fast growth is desired. Most of these are hybrids and most often they are so-called “cottonless” Cottonwoods. These are male clones selected because they do not produce the cottony seeds that become a nuisance. I also believe their origin is from back east as they do not have the same characteristics [bark, leaf, or even silhouette patterns] as the western natives like Fremont. Keep in mind that I'm not saying here that they are a great choice for residential landscapes – they are not. In many ways, I think that are a bad choice because their water requirements are much greater than natives, especially when older. These "cottonless" varieties of  cottonwoods can become very large when grown in or near a perennial water source. When young, they often perform well in irrigated landscapes. This is why they are preferred. Over time, they usually outgrow the irrigation system and begin to die back or succumb to disease. I have rarely seen large cottonwoods that have survived longer than 12 or 15 years in a landscape unless they have a creek, river, or septic system to sustain them. When regularly flood irrigated, they will grow and survive, but most drip systems [typical for Anza] will not provide adequate irrigation. Their roots are also extremely aggressive like the one in my former front yard had roots over 100' away clearly on the other side of the home. So anybody can be successful with them that first decade, but it's that time afterward when these giant trees have much greater water requirements especially in drier climates like Anza CA. 

Photo: Mine

Göteborg Botanical Gardens Spring 2013
But that takes me now to the biggest complaint against the native Fremont Cottonwood which admittedly does have a cottony seed, but only the size of a Dandelion. It's a minor inconvenience to live with for selecting a better choice for cottonwood which will have deeper roots and be a tougher survivor as compare to the back east hybrid which is not really that long lived by comparison. Up in Idyllwild, folks will complain about the Pines dropping pollen everywhere. Seriously no one would suggest getting rid of them in favour of neater choices. ALL Landscapes have maintenance issues. But this brings me to my recent visit a couple of weeks ago the Göteborg Botanical Gardens. There was a tree there that I really never noticed before or paid any attention to it being a Cottonwood. I supposed I always missed it because I came at the wrong time of year before or after it bloom, but here it is below. It is Populus wilsonii and is from central China in Asia.

This was enough to make anyone do a double take.  This stuff was everywhere. It was undeniable what this tree was and reminds me of something I've never forgotten when it comes to plant identity, although while the origin of this saying did have to do with plants, it was used illustratively in identifying the type of person we run across in life. 
 "By their fruits you will recognize them" Matthew 7:16  
Believe it or not, when I'm stumped out in the field and having a difficult time identifying plant which looks familiar, but has familiar shapes or patterns to something else, I actually look for fruits, nuts or other seeds. So the old saying of "by their fruits you will know them" holds an element of field working merit. While there are many type of plants, within the same group there will always be similar characteristics or identifying marks and patterns in the fruit they produce. Of course there are always exceptions, but still it makes things a fun challenge.

Photo: Mine
Here is a view from underneath the Cottonwood's canopy looking up towards the sky. These large cotton balls are so unmistakable and hard to miss. Wonder why I never paid any mind before ? Oh yeah that's right, I was always there in  the middle of deep summer.

Here is a much closer zoomed in shot to give you an idea of the size of these cotton balls. The leaves also are far more bigger than what most folks are use to seeing over in the States with the Native Fremont Cottonwood (Populus fremontii). The size of the cotton balls in this tree were huge and in some cases bigger than any actual cotton boll I've ever encountered in a Texas Farmer's field when I stopped along the roadside for the first time in my life encountering them. It was incredible stand under this tree and gazing up at some so unbelievable. And to think, if I had come at another moment as times past, I would have missed all of things and never paid the tree any mind as I had in the past. Funny, I never once when passing this tree ever glimpsed at the identification sign below it to find out what it was. I'll always pay close attention now and be sire to come back at the right time of year. *smile* 

Photo: Mine
And finally to give a better sense of scale for this trees leaves and the size of those large cotton balls, here is my hand lowering down a branch a bit for a closer shot. Looking at the size of these things, I wondered if anyone historically attempted to utilize these cotton bolls the same way we use the conventional cotton plant.
Photo: Mine
Anyone find this incredibly enlightening and educational ? I did.  Fremont Cottonwoods (Populus fremontii) don't really look half bad now do they ? This photo was taken in middle May 2013 in the San Jacinto Valley just north of the town of San Jacinto on what I presume is State Street or old Hwy 79. That sign is an indication you are approaching the San Jacinto River bridge to the Jct of turning right to Soboba Rd heading towards the Indian Casino or left onto Gilman Springs Rd towards Moreno Valley or north to Beaumont. The entire area was once a massive miles long and wide Cottonwood and California Sycamore Forested Savanna with most likely other trees like Arizona Ash which actually have heavy woodlands further upstream in Bee Canyon which is a tributary to the east. The natural world Juan Bautista de Anza saw in the Spring of 1774 & once again in 1775 must have been at it's peak in pristine condition must have been ever so beautiful.


  1. Timeless, 35 years ago my husband brought home a small cottonwood tree that he bought up near Victorville. We planted it in our back yard. It is now HUGE! Our neighbors to the east HATE IT because the leaves blow into their yard and pool. So, what do they do? They have their gardener collect all the leaves and he throws them back into our yard! A couple of years ago hubby had some guy over to cut off a branch that was over the house (none of the rest of the tree is...) and when it fell, it went WHAP! on the ground. The aforementioned neighbor screamed at my husband, "VHAT are you doing? You did NOT ask me if you could do dat!" Apparently the TWAP jarred him out of his beauty sleep...BUT, this tree is the home for an oriole family for YEARS and once in a while an owl stops by. I love to listen to the leaves stir on a breezy day and I also (hehehe!) LOVE knowing that it irks the hell out of our neighbors! But, that's just me...
    ~~Cheryl Ann~~

    1. Yeah at my old place in Anza on the west side of the house overlooking Anza Valley, every afternoon sounded like a rain shower outside. It was beautiful and kept the house cooler. Unfortunately that Cottonless Cottonwood is now long gone. Simply died slowly as a result of it's water requirements for it's much more massive bulk not being met.


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