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In Praise of Cottonwoods

Plains Cottonwood - Populus deltoidesLet's face it, we at Blake Nursery have a passion for Cottonwoods. We've heard them maligned a time or two because of their 'messiness', but we shudder to think of the local landscape if Cottonwood forests disappeared - a sorry picture. As these are the predominant native shade trees throughout our region we feel they deserve our respect and then some.

Plains Cottonwood

As we travel Montana's byways we admire these noble natives in every season. In spring as their buds swell they hold the promise of good things to come. In summer their lush green foliage is in sharp contrast to brilliant blue skies. Even in winter when nothing is especially showy about them, we admire their bold and stately stature, their gray, distinctive silhouette against the winter sky.

It's not only for aesthetic reasons we treasure these majestic trees so often gracing river bottoms. For starters, consider the shade they provide for any manner of living creature. And shade promotes nesting, perching, grazing, feeding, fishing and many other activities. Without these trees in riparian areas the abundance of wildlife would disappear and the recreational activities that go along with it.

Historically Cottonwoods played an important role in Montana. Native Americans appreciated them for food - inner bark and sap, and medicinal and ceremonial purposes. Then came Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery, for whom Cottonwoods were indispensable, providing the means of making their invaluable dugout canoes.

The next time you survey a stand of native Cottonwoods ask yourself what species they are - an entertaining exercise! In Montana there are three possibilities: Black (Populus trichocarpa), Plains (Populus deltoides) and Narrowleaf (Populus angustifolia).

The best way to ID them is by their leaves. Plains Cottonwood has a broad, triangular leaf with a flat bottom; Black Cottonwood has a narrower leaf with a rounded bottom, and its color is green on top and silvery white on the bottom; Narrowleaf has the narrowest leaf - no more than 1.5 inches wide.

Despite their occasionally bothersome cotton - a short-lived annual occurrence with the purpose of helping disperse seed - our native Cottonwoods are a national treasure. Take the time to enjoy them this season - even if you're not a tree hugger you may want to sing their praises.

Please note: The Cottonwoods we carry at Blake Nursery are predominantly male, thus produce no cotton. (Only female trees produce cotton.)

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