150 Boise Icons: Cottonwoods

awebb@idahostatesman.comJuly 7, 2013 

The black cottonwood is one of the few native trees in the Valley.

If you believe the legend about how Boise got its name, a French hunting party came west from the desert in 1833. Seeing green after a long trek through sagebrush, the Frenchmen exclaimed, "Les bois, les bois!"

The trees they saw were cottonwoods and willows growing along what became the Boise River, said Debbie Cook, Boise City arborist.

Cottonwoods grow near the water. They rely on river flows, as well as wind to carry their distinctive, fluffy seed pods to germinate. The presence of dams has changed the river through the years and created challenges for cottonwoods, said Cook.

Many cottonwoods now reproduce by suckers instead of seeds. Suckers are clones, offering less genetic diversity. Efforts, including those at the Idaho Botanical Garden, are underway to help.

The Botanical Garden is tending 200 black cottonwood trees grown from seed for the Land Trust of the Treasure Valley, said botanist Ann DeBolt. Crews will plant them in the wild when the trees are old enough. Cook's office also enlists volunteers to wrap trunks of young trees that grow along the Greenbelt to protect them from beavers.

Cottonwoods enhance habitat for a great variety of wildlife, said DeBolt. The trees develop cavities in their trunks that are nesting places for certain bird species.

Lewis and Clark made canoes from cottonwoods. Boise's settlers used them to build the city's earliest structures. The wood from cottonwoods is soft. Few of the city's first buildings remain. The O'Farrell Cabin on Fort Street is a rare exception.

Beyond all of this, cottonwoods offer a certain romance.

For one, there's the smell of their buds. How do you even describe something that is so omnipresent and familiar that you don't know you know it? It's that perfume, sticky-sweet some say, that hits you when you ride your bike through Julia Davis Park at dusk.

"I've collected buds in the winter and spring before they open. I keep them in an earthenware pot," said Cyndi Coulter with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "Years later, the rich, vanilla aroma persists."

In "Magpie Rising: Sketches from the Great Plains," writer Merrill Gilfillan described cottonwoods as trees with "unpretentious dignity and a delicious merciful shade."

They are trees, Gilfillan wrote, with a "raw-boned beauty" capable of creating "a cool psychological harbor."

Black cottonwoods can grow to 100 feet tall and live for more than 100 years.

Today, as Boise marks its 150th anniversary and moves toward its second century, Gilfillan's words again ring true about the city's native tree:

"Where there is any hope at all, there are cottonwoods on the horizon."

Happy birthday, hometown.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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