This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
My northern readers may not recognize this well-known tree under this popular name, which it commonly bears in the Southwestern States. It is the Populus Canadensis of the books.
There are two or three varieties of this family of Poplar. They are frequently called "Balm of Gilead" by country people; yet they are the true cotton-wood.
The prevailing storms, during the autumnal months, are from the northeast called so, probably, from their shedding a short, cottony fibre from the pod inclosing their seeds, which, in this latitude, 45° north, is about the 20th of Jane.
When in good grounds, it is a noble, stalwart tree, attaining the largest size, with a high, spreading top, the limbs striking out at some distance apart, the leaf heart-shaped, and about three inches broad, and, like other poplars, with a tremulous, vibrating motion in the slightest breeze. It luxuriates in a free, open, moist soil, and, in river bottoms, is unsurpassed in size and grandeur. It grows thriftily in all good uplands, preferring a clayey loam, but not averse to even thin and hungry soils. On the deep and rich alluvions of the western rivers, I have seen young trees, of a single summer's growth, fifteen feet high. The upper wood of the limbs is sometimes brittle, and more liable to break in tempests than the elm; yet they withstand the winds quite as well as most others. They are tenacious of life, and bear mutilation of the roots, in transplanting, with little injury to their growth. The color of the stems and branches is a light drab, producing a beautiful contrast with the elm and maple; and, although not affording so dense a shade as they, yet sufficient for all common purposes. To produce a rapid covering, no tree is its equal.
For avenue, lawn, or front planting, they should not be abundant; yet, thrown in occasionally with others, in spreading grounds, their effort is noble and imposing. Like the Lombardy poplar, standing alone, they are a conspicuous land-mark, partaking of the grand, while the other is picturesque. In February and March, they throw out numerous clusters of brown flower buds, and leaf out with the earliest, while they retain their foliage among the latest of our forest trees. Near a stable, a barn, or an out-building, they produce a fine effect, withstanding the rubbing and tramping of animals, and throwing their shadows far and wide, while their strong and hardy habits are in keeping with the homely uses of the buildings they thus adorn. They should not be planted in too close contiguity with the dwelling, as their strong roots will penetrate under the walls, if not laid deep, and with strong mortar; yet, at a distance of fifty or a hundred feet, they give no inconvenience. Song-birds love to perch on their lofty limbs, and sing by the hour among their fragrant tops, for they are delightfully fragrant when in flower, and, at this time, are enlivened with the constant hum of bees.
I have a noble one near my stable, sixty feet high, and about thirty years old, in which a pair of orioles have nested for several seasons, swinging their cosy habitation from one of the high outer limbs, and taking a world of delight in trilling out their songs on a sunny morning.
Of a rapid growth, no tree will form so ready a shade as this, and, to cover a naked spot, they are the most available. They are wonderfully suited to prairie planting in the west, both for protection and fuel: and, as adding to variety in any grounds, the use of the cotton-wood should not be neglected. Flourishing, too, as they will, in all the climates of the United States, they can be safely adopted everywhere on our farms and pleasure-grounds, with a trifling cost. Nurserymen should plant them, and they should be cheaply distributed; and, although they will both grace and ennoble the grounds of the rich, they can as well ornament the dwelling of the lowly. For school-grounds they are particularly appropriate. They can stand the boys, and throw a grateful shade over their wild gambols while bearing strongly up under their reckless embraces.
[Though Foucault, who studied this tree, calls it more picturesque than the Carolinian, we should not venture to recommend it in any plantation of an artistic or very select kind. For rapid growth and early flowering, it is only rivalled by the Populus grandidentata, a very interesting tree, both for the character of its head, and for its peculiar colored bark. The cotton from the flowers may be objectionable near a dwelling. The fine avenues in the lower parts of the garden at Versailles, are of this species. - Ed].