Walking along a favorite Creekside trail in April, I catch a whiff of cottonwood buds. It's a welcome sign of spring - the rich, honey-vanilla scent of ripe cottonwood buds as the leaves first emerge in the warming, lengthening days. The source of the scent, a sticky brown goo that coats the cottonwood buds, is extracted commercially for use in cosmetics and medicines, and used by Alaskans in balms and salves.
Cottonwoods are named for the tufts of fluffy white cotton that surrounds the seeds and helps them disperse in late summer, much like the fluff that comes from Fireweed.
Cottonwoods are the largest broadleaf trees in Alaska and they are the fastest growing trees in North America. They're found in river valleys and lowlands of Southeast and Southcentral Alaska and can grow to 100 feet in height, their thick trunks girded with grey, deeply fissured bark. Eagles build their platform nests in cottonwoods, and great blue herons find the broad crowns of the big trees attractive for their nesting colonies. Hares and moose eat the leaves, buds and catkins.
Related to fast-growing willows and poplars, cottonwoods share their remarkable ability to propagate from cut limbs and broken branches. Cottonwoods produce such high levels of rooting hormone that cut branches placed in wet ground will root and grow, and cut branches placed in water will stimulate rooting in other plants as well.