Fluffy Snow In June?
Walking around our village yesterday, I noticed many people pointing at or playing with heaps of what looked like snow. It edged every planting bed and decorated streets and blew through doorways to make fluffy mounds on doormats and carpets. I met a lovely multi-generational family laughing as they nudged the heaps with their feet to make them float around. Both the young kids and the grandmother were even trying to make “snowballs” from the fluffy stuff. When they asked me if I knew what it was, I explained that the floating fluff was a massive crop of female cottonwood seeds, wandering with the wind, seeking male pollen to fulfill their reproductive mission. I find it fascinating that, far from being allergens, quite a few female seed producers actually help clean the air of pollen.
How? Female tree flowers have a negative electrical charge, while male pollen develops a positive charge from its wind blown journey. Who knew? The result is that female flowers attract male pollen and capture it, clearing it from the air (good news for allergy sufferers!). Once the girls have accumulated a sufficiency of pollen, they sink to the ground, hoping to land in a hospitable spot. Most, of course, do not, but a fortunate few will find a safe landing place and produce another generation of trees. Cottonwood trees can be male or female, and unless there’s a male somewhere in the neighborhood, those fluffy seeds will collect pollen in vain, as none of it will be the right kind. If you have a cottonwood on your property, you can tell which it is by looking at the catkins in early spring; male catkins are yellow, while the girls are green.
From Tree Of Life To Trash Tree
Cottonwoods are big, beautiful native trees, cousins to aspens and poplars. Fast growing and sturdy, cottonwoods grow all over North America, and various species were prized by many Native American tribes, who used the wood for masks and medicine, ritual and ceremonial objects of many kinds and sizes, from sacred poles to Hopi kachinas. Black Cottonwood, the PNW coastal species, has the familial large, heart-shaped leaves and can reach 150 feet in favored places. Tribal people had dozens of uses for this medicine tree, from eating the sweet inner bark in spring to making salves from boiling buds with deer fat to treat sore throats and baldness, boiling old leaves into soothing wraps for arthritic joints, and much, much more. Cottonwood trees offer ingredients for paint and poultices, canoes and carrying bags, baskets and buckets, sweat lodge poles, spinning fiber and shampoo. The sticky gum makes glue for arrowheads and feathers, and the antibacterial resin is even used by native bees to seal and protect their hives. Perhaps observing this may have led ancestral people to explore other uses, just as watching squirrels licking maple trees encouraged East Coast Tribes to discover sweet maple sap and learn to make syrup millennia ago.
Sadly, the cottonwood is now considered the most hated tree in North America, mainly because of that abundant fluff but also because this large tree is out of scale with today’s small housing lots and shrinking public parks. Cottonwoods get cut down because their roots break sidewalks and their fluff clogs drains, because branches can break in high winds, and because they’re simply TOO MESSY!! In many communities, cottonwoods are actually classified as “trash trees”, a designation that ought to be illegal and unthinkable. No Native tradition calls any plant “trash” and no such disrespectful, presumptuous term would ever be used for anything in Nature.
When Trees Get Messy
I was once asked to recommend a good arborist who could remove a healthy, beautiful American cottonwood tree. It wasn’t blocking a view or threatening to fall on anything, and the yard had plenty of light, so I asked why this lovely tree was slated to die. Turns out the owner didn’t like the fluffy seeds that cover his patio with each June. He was also sure that it triggered his seasonal allergies, but on that score, I was able to reassure him (not sure he totally believed me, though). Though female cottonwoods often get blamed for allergies, many other trees have been tossing out the pollen for months by the time that cottonwood sends out its seeds. Despite the rains of spring that can wash pollen from the air, much of it is still present in backyards, gardens, parks, and meadows, and on windy days, wind blown pollen old or fresh can still be an issue for the sensitive.
What’s more, grasses start shedding pollen around the same time as the cottonwood seeds are released. Many ornamental grasses are tremendous pollen producers, as are most lawn grasses, not to mention the weedy ones along roadsides and native grasses in natural areas. All that adds up to a lot of sneezes, but cottonwoods are not the culprits. As that unhappy cottonwood tree owner talked about his aging body and the trouble caused by dealing with cottonwood fluff and leaves, he was ready to clearcut his whole yard. However, as we talked a little more, it was clear that he truly did appreciate the greenery that wove a gentle green privacy curtain around his home. Even in winter, he liked seeing the deciduous trees’ graceful shapes. Our joint solution? Hire a reliable yard service instead of an arborist and learn to love the natural abundance. Onward, right?