Cottonwood fluff is flying in Anchorage, and the complaints are piling up

Garden and yard things happen so fast in Alaska’s short season that I often find myself having to write about things that have already happened. Bear with me.

Take, for example, the fact that there were no thrips covering mock orange, Philadelphus coronarius, this year. Ours flowered two weeks ago and were simply fantastic. You could cut them and bring them indoors without fear of those little black bugs crawling all over the place. Ah, now I remember why we started using these in our landscape!

There are several cultivars of mock orange these days. Single flowers have lead to doubles. There is one with yellow leaves and another with pointed petals. These are all stone hardy here in Alaska, have terrific fragrance and, when the weather is like we have had, no thrips.

lowenfels aphids

Similarly, meadow rue, Thalictrum aquilegiifolium, had absolutely no aphids on them. In years past they would be covered, and I mean literally covered, with aphids that had to be knocked off before you could use the flowers or even see them. This lovely plant is a spreader. You plant it in one garden and the following year you might find new plants in another part of your yard. It happens to be one spreader I don’t mind, but to each his and her own.

Ah, but what I really wanted to write about is a subject that was pretty hot last week: cottonwoods. The annual dropping of seed pods and blowing of fluff was much like it is every year only the lack of rain meant the stuff piled up.

Like many Alaskans, I belong to an internet “service” called Nextdoor. Normally, this is predominantly reserved for “have you seen my missing cat” messages, but last week it was full of complaints about cottonwood fluff.

Essentially people wanted to know what you can do when the cottonwoods making your yard unusable are located in the neighbors’ yards. It was quickly established that you can cut any limbs hanging over your yard. Then there was a debate as to the best way to get rid of the neighbors’ trees. On the one side of the spectrum were some pretty devious removal solutions, but on the other end was the suggestion that you offer to pay for removal of your neighbors’ offending trees, the best of all solutions.

Allergy season

I didn’t mention cottonwoods last week when talking about dealing with dead spruce and the advisable move to have a professional take care of them. Live cottonwoods, by similar tokens, are just as dangerous. The wood is soft and branches will drop when you look at them the wrong way even when the limbs are fully alive. The fluff and the soft wood are the reason cottonwood trees are really awful for use in landscaping.

Actually, what we call a cottonwood may be a similar tree, the balsam poplar. I am just pointing this out; it probably doesn’t matter as these trees are so closely related. We think of them as soft, junky wood, but actually, they make great lumber and pulp. Nonetheless, I am pretty sure no one plants cottonwood saplings when landscaping even though I understand the wood is great if you want to make your own violins or cellos.

No we don’t plant these because these are weed trees. That fluff represents so many seeds that it is impossible for at least some of them not to germinate. The next thing you know, you have cottonwood seedlings in the lawn or along the alleyway. From my perspective these seedlings all need to go. Mow them down. Weed-eat them down. Clip them down.

As for the ones that got away and now dump garbage pails of seed pods on your lawn every year, you might want to remove them, too. It is up to you. Just remember, however, to take your neighbors into consideration.

Jeff’s Garden Calendar

Alaska Botanical Garden: If you think things look good in your yard, check out The Garden! Wow. If you have not joined, what are you waiting for?

Lilac pruning: Remember, it is best to prune immediately after flowering. Next year’s flowers will soon be forming so be judicious and don’t prune them all off.

Delphiniums, hollyhocks and other tall plants: This dry weather cannot last. Stake your plants so they will hold up when it does rain.

Thin: Carrots, lettuces and other crowded plantings. Eat the thinnings.

Potatoes: Hill them.

Jeff Lowenfels | Alaska gardening and growing

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2022 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He’s authored several books on organic gardening, and his latest book, "Teaming With Bacteria," is available on Amazon. Reach him at