The aspen trees get all the glory. All those shots featured on calendars with the stunning golden aspens contrasting against the pines and firs. That’s what everyone thinks of when they think of fall in Colorado.
But walking along a local creek, I admired the view looking upstream. Trees ablaze in yellow framed the babbling brook on either side, and there wasn’t an aspen in sight. Though the aspen trees have long since reached peak colors and dropped their leaves, bright splashes of yellow still abound in Boulder Canyon.
The Narrowleaf Cottonwood Tree is still providing breathtaking autumnal scenes along the Front Range foothills. These trees grow in tight stands along many of the creeks than run down from the foothills to the plains. Perhaps its color stands out because of the way it grows limbs from top to bottom, with even the scrawny branches near the ground sprouting leaves. Growing between 5,000 and 8,000 feet, its burst of color is providing a stunning commute for me as I drive down to Boulder each morning.
The Narrowleaf Cottonwood Tree should not be confused with its plains cousin, with its more distinct heart shape leaf. The Plains Cottonwood Tree tends to have a bigger, bulkier trunk with more of a lollipop-shape to it. Up until six years ago, Boulder County laid claim to the national champion of Plains Cottonwood Trees in Hygiene, Colorado. That tree stood over 10 stories tall, with a 9 foot diameter.
Like many trees, cottonwoods will grow tall as young trees, sometimes adding as much as 6 feet per year. As they age, they begin to spread out and put more girth on their trunks, and spread out their crown. The enormous crown makes them excellent shade trees.
Both species of cottonwood produce the fluffy, white seeds that give them their name. These seeds are easily picked up by the wind and deposited, making it easy for the trees to reproduce where water is plentiful.
You’ll see lots of larger, more mature Cottonwood trees in Colorado, mainly because their wood was not particularly useful for building. The most common use for the wood is to make pallets or shipping crates.
It’s not too late to enjoy the beauty of the Cottonwoods during fall foliage season. Take a drive along any canyon between Denver and Wyoming, and you’ll get plenty of golden yellow to oooh and aahhh over.