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Cottonwood or Balsam Poplar

Cottonwood treesCharacteristics of the tree commonly called cottonwood or balsam poplar. Its latin name is Populus balsamifera L.

Cottonwood is a medium sized, deciduous tree usually 9 to 15 meters high with a thin, open crown. The diameter is usually between 10 and 30 centimeters. Very large cottonwoods are found in particularly favorable habitats, reaching heights of 30 meters and diameters of 60 centimeters. Cottonwood grows rapidly and is common in river valleys, flood plains and alluvial fans throughout interior Alaska except near the coasts. In forests, cottonwood is associated with white spruce, birch, aspen and also with willow and alder.

Twigs: younger twigs are a red brown color becoming gray when older. Raised leaf-scars create a rough texture on the twigs that terminate in buds.

Young twigs are reddish color:Older twigs are gray:

Winter buds are large, up to 2.5 centimeters long. They are long and pointed and covered with shiny brown scales. If you rub your fingers across a bud you will feel a sticky substance. This is called resin. You may smell a sweet, pungent balsam odor, too.

In early spring cottonwood buds take on a strikingly different appearance. The flower buds open into soft, fuzzy conically shaped flowers and the leaf buds open as, well, leaves. Male and female flowers are on separate trees.

Leaf Buds:Development of Flower Buds:

Bark: On young trees, the bark is light gray and fairly smooth. Older bark and bark on very large trees becomes thick and deeply furrowed.

Bark on a younger tree: and on an old tree: old cottonwood bark

Economic importance: Wood from cottonwood trees is used in Alaska for firewood, rough-cut lumber and a small amount of specialty, high-quality lumber for cabinets and flooring.

Question: Why do you think Balsam Poplar is also called cottonwood?

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This page last updated April 17, 2007

 

 

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