Cottonwoods Make Me Crazy

A few weeks ago I saw an article titled Don’t Plant These Trees in Your Urban Yard. Before I’d even read it, I guessed one tree that would be on the list: the cottonwood (Populus sp.).
We have two cottonwoods in the backyard, and every year – spring in particular – I wonder what possessed the developers of our mid-70s neighbourhood to plant them. While I enjoy the shade they provide on those 30°+ summer days, it doesn’t offset the many things I dislike about this ubiquitous Prairie tree.

cottonwood 1936
From USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database. Provided by National Agricultural Library. Originally from US Forest Service. United States, NY, Geneva. 1936.

Cottonwoods are a moisture-loving tree, normally found on floodplains and riverbanks. They crave water – and will extend their root systems widely to find it. Our yard is crisscrossed with cottonwood roots – some 10-15 cm in diameter and just under the ground surface, others mere  tendrils working their way into the raised garden beds from the bottom up. They’ve stretched perilously close to the foundation of the house, at a corner where water used to collect. Once they find that moisture, they grow prolifically! In the 6 years we’ve lived here, our yard has become increasingly shaded and the veggie garden has not been impressed.
Cottonwoods growing along the Oldman River, southern Alberta (photo: S Boon)
Cottonwoods growing along the Oldman River, southern Alberta (photo: S Boon)

Cottonwoods have thick bark that was meant to protect them from prairie grass fires. They also produce a lot of debris. Windstorms (which we get a lot of down here) easily break small and medium branches out of the trees. In early spring we rake up piles of dead branches, only to be inundated again in late spring as the May/June rainstorms pummel new leafy branches out of the treetops. One of our trees is infested with hard, dark brown galls caused by mites. The round, knobby growths on almost every joint are reminiscent of the inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis. The dogs, however, love them, and there are so many to choose from all scattered around the yard.
Mite gall on poplar; Photo from County of Vermilion River

When the warmth of spring arrives, the cottonwood buds open and exude a substance stickier than superglue, complete with a bright yellow resin. These sticky buds carpet the lawn (and the dogs, the soles of your shoes, the deck…), leaving a nasty stain in their wake. If you have arthritis, you can make ‘Balm of Gilead’ from the ripe buds – a cooked mix of olive oil and yellow resin to be rubbed into the joints.
Cottonwoods also produce a rooting hormone called auxin, meant to help them colonize new locations via wind or water-borne branches, or where the roots have extended some distance from the main tree. Cottonwood suckers pop up throughout our lawn and in the perennial beds, trying desperately to create a cottonwood grove. Catkin buds fallen from the tree try to root in the gravel around the raised garden beds, looking in vain for some decent soil.
Although cottonwoods make terrible neighbours in suburbia, they are a key species in their native floodplain habitat.
Cottonwoods are like the building blocks of mature floodplains, and are a key component of primary succession in these landscapes. Cottonwood establishment anchors floodplain sediments and can affect river flow paths by reducing the erodibility of the river banks. They’re also well-suited to environments that flood periodically – rather than being wiped out by a natural disaster, they thrive and keep the disaster from worsening by maintaining floodplain stability.
The trouble is, changes in river flow due to dam-related regulation and withdrawal uses such as irrigation has left cottonwood communities in a precarious position along many river systems. A comprehensive approach to water management that includes the water needs of riparian vegetation and aquatic organisms will be important in maintaining and restoring cottonwoods in the floodplain (not suburban!) landscape where they belong.
So out with the cottonwoods – at least in the backyard. Let’s make sure they thrive where they belong – along the river.

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29 thoughts on “Cottonwoods Make Me Crazy”

  1. hoe can I get rid of cotton wood galls all over my front yard? Will removing the tree make them disolve? I have sprayed the new sprouts with 2-4-D many times and a new sprout comes up next to it almost immediately. Please help!

    • Glenda –
      the best way that I’ve found to get rid of galls is to rake them up.
      As for the new sprouts…these trees are hardy and not only is 2-4-D harmful to more than just sprouts (think kids, pets, beneficial plants), it’s not going to kill the sprouts. We’ve found that repeatedly cutting them off and/or severing the root they’re popping up from can help.
      You could take the tree down, which would get rid of the galls. But unless you get the stump ground out, and keep on cutting off the sprouts, it can regenerate from the trunk/roots.
      Good luck!

  2. I know this post is from 2013 but I’d like to know if you have any idea how long the sticky buds last? There is an enormous cottonwood tree in the yard next door and my deck, table, chairs, grill and my poor dog’s paws are covered. They are horrible. I’m losing my mind! I think my poor dog has sore paws from us picking them off when she comes in.

  3. We live in sedona, az, and have a flood area that runs through our development. The flood channel goes through a golf course that is surrounded by town homes. We have a number of large cottonwood along the banks of the flood channel. Many of our neighbors want all the trees cut down because they claim their seeds are a nuisance. Others believe they are essential to the ecosystem. We heard a comment that we could cut down the trees and the roots will continue to hold the banks in check. Based on my reading, this will just result on new trees sprouting. Can you provide resources on these last two issues?

    • Cottonwoods are a natural part of the ecosystem, and play an important role in stabilizing the floodplain. You’re correct in noting that, if you cut them down without removing the roots, you’ll just get new trees sprouting. But you wouldn’t want to remove the roots because that will destabilize the stream banks.

      • Do you have any ideas on how to manage the sticky buds? Removing the tree will cost $3000 (I’m in Alberta). I’m losing my mind.

      • Im renting a home that has 3 cottonwoods in the back yard. I didn’t have a clue what they were until now. There is cotton everywhere! I can’t seem to find a rake or something that can get these things into a pile so that can suck em up with my Stihl vac. Any recommendations on equipment to rake or easiest way to maintain these things. Ugh

  4. My father, as a small, curious boy growing up on the Alberta Prairie (1930s) wondered whether the nice fluffy white ‘cotton’ covering the ground, was flammable. So he lit a match to find out, turned out, it is – and an unintended fire swept across the valley. No one harmed, no structures burned, but he got into a pile of trouble, and the grasses and trees were taken out by the fire.

    • LOL my dad did something similar with Scotch broom. He grew up in Holland and they had a lot of broom on some sand dunes near his house. He and some friends tested the broom for flammability – and got quite a fire going!

  5. I’m in WA state. The “snow” is all over the place. I’m drowning in it & the new sprouts are all over my garden. How do I “rake” without killing my vegetable starts? I’m out in the yard with a hand vac 3-4 times a day. I brought out my big vacuum yesterday because it was so bad. I’m a slave to this stuff. Glyphosate is the enemy!!! I won’t touch it!!! Help please.

  6. We deliberately chose Trex boards the color of the sticky seed coverings for the deck. They still stain but wash off when the deck is cleaned. We think of the cottonwood as the trees that keep on giving – they provide daily work to keep the deck clear: the sticky things, the strings of green seed Pearl’s that fall out of the tree in every storm, the cotton that creates messes, the ripe pearl “snakes” that fall daily on the yard, deck and roof, the numerous leaves of fall that provide raking exercise – I think I like them best in winter!

  7. Our neighbors have two cottonwood trees and the sticky stuff falls as much in our driveway as theirs. We both hate it! I am out in the driveway a couple times a day cleaning it off the driveway or else it gets tracked into the house and makes a real mess! I have used a rake on the driveway, but it falls between the tines. I have used a broom, but it sticks to the bristles. This year I tried a blower, but it is too stuck to the asphalt to be blown away. Then a few days ago I tried what I think will be my attack method from now on …… I used my snow shovel. My neighbor (the owner of the trees) came outside and jokingly told me I was confused as to what season we were in. Trust me, I prefer shoveling snow!

    • I am very glad to not live near cottonwoods anymore – don’t have to deal with the sticky buds and their mess! Glad you found a tool to get them off your driveway.

    • I have been experimenting for years on ways to remove the sticky yellow marks on decks and shoes etc. The best methods I have found on plastic items is to use “easy off” oven cleaner or scrubbing bubbles. The second is not as effective. When you spray both let it sit. In 10 minutes all the foam will turn yellow. Then Wash off with a stiff plastic brush.

  8. I hope there are no cottonwoods in heaven! I have dealt with them for 35 years- and they put me in a foul mood…..I always get frustrated because I can’t enjoy my yard, and the trees are not mine. They would’ve been cut down long ago if they were!

  9. We are now in the sticky bud season which is the worst! I would like to share a way to remove these staining tabs from paws and other surfaces. I wipe my dog’s paws and my hands etc. with rubbing alcohol and that helps to remove them. They are such bad neighbors to have.

      • To help get the sticky buds off the dogs’ paws I use a constarch powder on their paws after removing the yellow buds. It keeps the yellow from tranferring to my kitchen floors and makes the dogs happier. I’d say 2 weeks of this and then the buds are ussually gone.

  10. Your article was informative and so well written! And I love the comments. We live on a river in the Sierra Nevada and have a lovely river backyard filled with perennials and 18 cottonwood trees. Oh my… used to have 24 but several were removed due to disease.

    We call the leaf shells the ‘stickies’. And they last 3-4 weeks. Awful!

    If they get wet (from rain or watering) they breakdown more quickly. Then I get the leaf blower out and blow them off. That works well.

    To get them off soles of shoes I use Comet and a stiff brush. Works 100%. Alcohol works on furniture. Since I have longhair ShiTzus they don’t go in the backyard during this time. Only side yard.

    So the stickie season ends and then come the cotton buds and that is a huge mess. I use the leaf blower on low to get them out of perennial beds because they take root and sprout! If I’m late I scrape them out with a rake or by hand. Such joy.

    The cotton clouds are intense.
    The root sprouts need to be cut out of lawn. I find if I can get to the root and sever it lengthwise with a little saw I buy a few years before it sprouts again.

    So much work these trees! Branches, stickies, buds, cotton, roots everywhere and then it is fall…. We can fill a 14’ dump trailer 1 and 1/2 times over with leaves.
    But the fall colors are incredible. The golden light radiates into my home and the yard glows. My trees are famous in town as people stop to photograph from the river bend.

    These trees are an enormous amount of work. At the same time they are the shade therapy on a hot summer day along the river. Every person who visits my backyard simply ooohs and ahhhs over the glorious river, shade and perennial flowers. It is magic and a labor of love!

    I wish I could share photos because it is one of the most amazing backyards in my entire region of Lake Tahoe.

    If I didn’t live on a river these trees would be extremely annoying.

    Happy summer to all.


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