Around town the leaves on a few maples and sumacs are flaming, and the news anchors go on and on about the aspens turning in the mountains. Not much rain this year, so lots of oranges and reds. Down at a mere mile high, most leaves only hint at the fall colors yet to come, but soon the lawn and gardens will be covered with cottonwood leaves. Some other kinds, too, but mostly cottonwood from our neighbor’s numerous trees. They provide cool, desirable shade in the hot summer, but I’ve never known a messier tree. And they’re big, so the mess is big, too.
In the spring, cottonwoods produce sap-covered buds that litter patio, porch, paths and sidewalks, and stick to the bottom of your shoes to later gum up the carpet. The gooey substance is similar to balm of Gilead, but even I’m not crazy enough to try and extract it.
Then there are the stringy, hanging catkins. They cover everything each year, tucking into flower buds, weaseling between gravel and mulch, and blanketing the lawn. For a month or more, I pile the
ugly not-terribly-attractive flowers into the garbage at every turn.
And let’s not forget the cotton. For two or three months it floats through the air, adheres to petunias and evergreens in a white, fuzzy haze, gathers against curbs and swirls behind passing cars. Rain mats it into the gutters. Every garden harvest requires soaking in the sink to rinse away the puffs of fluff. We pick drowned cottonwood seeds out of our iced tea and wine when sitting outside. Late each summer, when the cotton no longer flies daily, we go around the whole house and blow the fuzz out of the screens with an air compressor.
So many cottonwood seeds distributed this way. Is it any wonder they produce seedlings? Like, everywhere? So add those fast-growing tiny trees to the regular weeding regimen. They especially like to overwinter in the vegetable garden in order to get a running start before the carrots and spinach have much of a chance.
For about six weeks in the summer and most of the winter months the cottonwoods are either well-behaved or utterly dormant. In between well-behaved and dormant comes the autumn leaves. And, wouldn’t you know it, unlike most leaves that you can heap onto the gardens as mulch or add to the compost, cottonwood leaves don’t break down. They will endure for years, utterly uninterested in decomposing, until physically removed. Sometimes a windstorm will help, but mostly it requires rakes – and power equipment. For six weeks we’ll do battle, blowing and mowing and picking leaves out of bark mulch, and gently raking them out of evergreens.
Yet I love those trees. The sound of a breeze through cottonwood branches in the summer fills my heart. I can sit for hours in the fall, the air full of flying yellow leaves like thousands of butterflies fluttering to the ground. Lying in the hammock and watching the white fluff floating against the intense azure of the Colorado sky defines summer.
Cottonwoods are the state tree of Wyoming. They remind me of my childhood, of my roots. When I lived in Washington state, a rare, single tree grew next to the house. There, I relished the cotton and the stubborn leaves, though on a much smaller scale.
But the roots wound under the aggregate driveway, cracking it as they headed toward the garage. The tree had to come out. When they ground out the stump, the wood didn’t chip. It shredded, soft and stringy. As mulch, it lasted for years.
Can’t help it: I’m glad to be back among the trashy cottonwoods of my youth.