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Plant of the Week: Cottonwood

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Plant of the Week

Latin: Populus deltoides

Picture of a large cottonwood tree standing beside a field.

Like Will Rogers, I never met a tree I didn’t like. I even like cottonwood. Most folks who write about trees dismiss cottonwood with little comment or downright scorn as a weedy, fast-growing, weak-wooded tree that is always dropping something.

All of these may be true, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

My attraction to cottonwood, Populus deltoides, is probably more sentimental than logical, for it was the one tree in central Oklahoma you could count on to get big. Cottonwoods belong to the willow family, but they still can reach 100 feet tall with trunks as much as 8 feet through.

The thickly furrowed, ash-gray trunks may be straight and true with the first branch 40 feet off of the ground. Just as often they will be multi-trunked and twisted and look more like a caricature of an impressionist’s painting than a real tree.

The leaves, shaped like the spade on a deck of playing cards, are thick and glossy green and flash in the sunlight with the slightest breeze. As these leaves flutter in the breeze, they give off a rustling - a whispering - that sounds like the spirits of old with stories to tell if we could but understand. In the fall, these leaves turn a golden yellow that is one of the autumnal highlights of the plains states.

Flowers on cottonwoods are borne in drooping panicles high in the trees, and the only time one sees them is when they litter the lawn after bloom time. Shortly thereafter, female trees begin producing snowdrifts of downy seeds which drive neat-freaks mad.

Cottonwoods were the original explorers of this continent. If you look at their distribution, you find they migrated up the major water courses; the Mississippi, the Arkansas, the Ohio, the Missouri, the Platt and the Rio Grande. From these major waterways, they spread up all of the riverlets and streams and prospered in the moist alluvial flood plains throughout the country.

In the eastern woodlands, where better timber species grew, wood cutters developed a general disdain for the cottonwood because its wood was brittle, prone to extreme warping as it dried and just not as useful as oak or pine.

But, as westward expansion forced people onto the Great Plains, the cottonwood suddenly became more appreciated. The early French trappers, who shipped countless thousands of beaver pelts down the Platt and Missouri Rivers, used cottonwood trunks as dugout canoes.

As the wagon trains of the Oregon and Santa Fe trail headed west, cottonwood groves served as beacons on the featureless plains to point out water sources.

Greenville Dodge, as he headed up the Platt River Valley in 1866 building the Union Pacific Railroad, used cottonwood cross ties on the new roadbed. Needing 2,400 ties per mile, and having no other locally available source of wood, Dodge selected cottonwood knowing full well that the ties would last only three years. In the great railroad race, speed was all important.

Cottonwoods are best used in large landscapes where the tree can be kept at a distance or in difficult sites where a more refined tree will fail. Even though cottonwoods are incredibly fast growing, with trees routinely reaching 30 feet in less than seven years, they are too large for most suburban landscape settings.

Souixland is a selection released by the University of North Dakota and is the only cultivar routinely offered in the nursery trade. It performs better in the prairie states than in the humid southeast where the various canker and leaf diseases are more serious.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - January 25, 2002


The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.