Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Cottonwood - An Untapped Alaskan Resource

Every year as the cottonwood seeds burst open and litter our deck and yard, I wonder whether we couldn't find some ways to use the cotton.

Deirdre at Lifetecture has asked the same question:
I’ve been looking at the drifts on the streets and the white fuzz floating around, getting in peoples’ eyes and generally wasted. I wonder can this be harvested? It seems like it would make the most amazing kind of felt, even batting for insulation. I wonder if this has ever been done?

Sure, cottonwood will not replace oil as an economic stimulus (though maybe it could be used to absorb oil that spills), but little niche markets here and there could provide employment and income, just as people make money from birch syrup and musk ox wool.

Aside from the obvious pillow stuffing possibilities, what else could be done with cottonwood cotton?

This is just the collection on our deck on the morning of the first day of our trees starting to send forth their seeds. There's a nickle at 5 o'clock so you can see the size.

Coincidentally, BS invited me for a bike ride today and at the first stop on the old Seward Highway that is now a bike trail to Girdwood, I found this nature lesson - on cottonwoods.

The website halfbakery already has this suggestion for uses of cottonwood seeds posted. It begins:

Make clothing, fill comforters and pillows with cottonwood fibers.

While he's being tongue-in-cheek (the site is called halfbakery after all) others are more serious.

Someone actually mixed cottonwood (60%) with regular white cotton (40%).
After I had enough to skein I boiled it like one would regular cotton and then let it dry under some tension. It dried to a nice off-white, softer than regular hand spun cotton.
It worked up better than I thought it would!

(This site says you need permission of the author before reprinting the article. But at the bottom it said:
The copyright of the article Spinning Cottonwood in Fiber Arts is owned by . Permission to republish Spinning Cottonwood in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

No author was listed as you can see. I went through all the listed authors and each of their lists of articles (usually only one or two) and nobody claimed credit for this one. Nevertheless I only give you a bit of the post and you can see the whole post here. (She even links to the blanket she made)
Someone at Knittingirls has found uses for the buds.
And, if you could bottle the scent of the cottonwood buds when they open in the springtime, I'd surely wear it every day. It's not that I haven't tried. There seem to be a number of ways to do this (looking around online), but I make a salve by gathering the buds when they start to open, steep them in olive oil for up to a year, strain, and heat the oil while adding enough beeswax to make a salve, hardening some as it cools in the jar. We use it medicinally as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory. Apparently the buds have been used for sore throats and whooping cough, as well, by Native Americans and First Nations.
[Update: Anonymous left a link to a website that has a recipe for using the sticky, but oh so fragrant, leaf buds to make balm of gilead.]

And she used the catkins of a cottonwood tree to dye a shawl. (Yeah, I had to look up catkin too. Wikipedia says it's
a slim, cylindrical flower cluster, with inconspicuous or no petals, usually wind-pollinated (anemophilous) but sometimes insect pollinated (as in Salix). They contain many, usually unisexual flowers, arranged closely along a central stem which is often drooping. (look at the top two pictures on this post.)

There's a Cottonwood Baby Products that sells diapers but there's nothing to suggest that Cottonwood is anything more than their name. Same thing with Cottonwood Pallets.

The Utah State University Cooperative Extension site says that only the female trees have cotton and there's a product to prevent them from producing cotton:

Male clones of cottonwoods should not produce cotton- only the female trees produce the seeds ("cotton"). Sometimes you will hear of cottonless cottonwood trees later developing cotton but they were probably mislabeled. Some hybrid cottonwoods sold are listed as "sterile female hybrids." These are not cottonless because they are not male. The "sterile" refers to the fact that the seeds they produce are incapable of germinating. However, they still produce the cotton to distribute the seed. If you have a cottonwood that produces cotton and you don't want to cut it down, you can use Florel to prevent cotton development in female trees. You will need to check the label to see when to apply it.
For all the mess they make, would I really want to do that? I think not.

One site says cottonwood is the state tree of Kansas and Nebraska.

The Alaska fishing industry used to throw away the salmon roe until a visiting Japanese businessman saw what was going on and now someone makes lots of money selling salmon roe. While Alaska won't get rich from cottonwood, some families might be able to make a living. It just takes someone looking at what we see as a nuisance with a different eye, to find something useful. And we certainly have plenty of cottonwoods and cottonwood seeds.

[UPDATE June 1, 2014:  Here's a new post on how to prevent your cottonwood trees from spreading cotton.  It's probably not too practical for most people.]

[UPDATE Nov. 2, 2015:  Here's discussion at Permies in which Deb Berman offers a step by step description of how she spins cottonwood fibers.]


  1. The Cottonwood is not a tree, it is a weed, a big giant weed that should be destroyed.

    1. An allergy sufferer...But no, Russian olives, tamerasks where I come from are the weeds and need to be taken down. Also elms for the insects try bring. But cottonwood trees? Nope.

      But anyways I've been thinking of carting the little seedlings and seeing if I could spin it to yarn. It works for cotton seeds. So why not cotton trees?

    2. Visited Alaska, and had severe allergy to cottonwood.

    3. Cottonwoods are a species specializing in damaged ecosystem repair, the main reason there are so many of them and the main reason for so many allergies to them is a glut caused by anthropogenic alterations to the environment. So it's a weed, but it is our weed and our creation. Destroying them will just make other "super weeds."

  2. Steve! You read my mind! I was thinking the same thing last night. I was picking the stuff up and wondering if something could be done with the seeds to make an oil or something. It was so thick in my neighborhood that my three year old kept saying it was 'nowing, but she was not happy with the results on her little tongue!

  3. I love the smell of cottonwood buds in the spring!!
    Alpenglow skincare products out of Anchor Point use the buds in one of there products.

  4. Cottonwood is actually used to make Balm of Gilead:

  5. I got 20 cotonwoods at @ 4 corners in Wasilla. Anyone interested in taking them off my hands? Want to build a house and it seems a waste to just bury or burn? 715-8363

  6. Was out in a kayak the other day. Saw CARP coming up to pull down the fluff and they ate it. Also saw an osprey pick off a little carp. At least I like ospreys...
    Cottonwood grows really fast and it makes good pulp for things like tissue and paper towels.
    When it goes through a chipper it also makes good compost and it breaks down really fast.
    Can't stand burning it, smells awful takes forever to dry out and gets wet again real fast in the rain.

  7. Cotton wood products? Has anyone ask the drug companies if they use cottonwood in any of their medicines. If so they could come to Alaska and harvest all we have,then maybe they could give alaskans a break on medicine.

  8. I think Claritin is the main drug associated with cottonwood. But it's to help those who can't breath when the cotton is flying.

  9. Does anyone have any cottonwood cotton saved up for some reason or another? I'm looking to use it in a study to protect cooling eqipment from contamination via cotton.

    Contact me at ASAP.


  10. Cottonwood is highly flammable which is why it isn't used for clothing or bedding.

    1. Interesting thought Anon. Do you know that for sure? Or is it just a guess on your part. Is it, for example, more flammable than cotton? Or polyester? Maybe that's a reason now, but 100 years ago, I don't think that was such a great factor. I'm guessing the economics of collecting cotton from cottonwood trees played a bigger part in it not being used. Or maybe the cotton industry would have suppressed it if they thought it was a threat.


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