Also Known As
Common cottonwood, Eastern cottonwood, Plains poplar
This tree has triangular shaped leaves, which is where the "deltoid" in the Species name comes from. The leaves have coarse teeth along their edges.
Large coarsely-toothed triangular leaves with flattened stems and glands at the tips distinguish Plains cottonwood from most other species of cottonwood. The flowers are produced as catkins, with male catkins being reddish-purple while female catkins are greenish in color.
Did You Know?
Although Plains cottonwoods are very fast growing trees, they are not long lived trees. They are susceptible to disease, fire, and drought. The light wood was important as a construction material to Native Americans and European settlers to the Midwest and Great Plains states. It is the state tree of Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming. Note that in older books plains cottonwood and eastern cottonwood were considered separate species.
The leaves are simple and alternate along a branch. The ‘deltoides’ part of the scientific name refers to the triangular-shaped leaves. They are 3 to 6 in (8 to 15 cm) long and are narrow and commonly long-pointed with fine to coarse rounded teeth. They have a very distinct odor when crushed, turning yellow in autumn. The petioles (the stalk that attaches the leaf to the plant) are very short and flattened and have a pair of small glands at the tip.
The many tiny yellowish or greenish flowers usually appear in early spring before the leaves. The trees are dioecious which means the male (staminate) and female (pistillate) flowers are found on separate trees. Flowers are found in hanging catkins (long, drooping structures). The flowers appear in April or May before the leaves develop.
The fruits are capsules with 3 or 4 valves about 0.25 in (0.64 cm) long. It is the fluffy, white, ‘cotton’ like seeds produced by the females in early summer that give the tree its name. The numerous tiny seeds are widely dispersed by the wind. The seeds generally mature between June and August.
The bark is gray or brown and smooth on younger trees, becoming rough, scaly or furrowed with age. The slender twigs are yellowish-brown and are flexible to the touch, often shedding or easily detached at forks.
Widely distributed in Great Plains states eastward throughout the Midwestern and eastern US especially in riparian areas. It grows best on moist well-drained sands or silts near streams, irrigation ditches, riverbanks, and roadsides.