Cottonwood Tree Bark Guide: Tip to Spot a Cottonwood 100% of the Time

An image of a huge Cottonwood tree showing the deep fissured Cottonwood tree bark, set in an oval frame on green background.

Cottonwood trees are massive deciduous trees with enormous green leaves and dense foliage, but did you know that just by looking at cottonwood tree bark, you can identify this common tree species almost 100% of the time?

The fluffy cotton-like threads that develop every June are a characteristic feature of all varieties of cottonwood trees, but if you’re trying to ID a tree in December, looking for seeds and flowers can be tricky (to say the least).

Found in North America, Europe, and Asia, the Cottonwood tree is a favorite because they are fast-growing, have inexpensive timber, are actually edible (the bitter Cottonwood Tree leaf, that is), and can thrive in various climates, from marshes to desert regions.

This complete guide explains how you can spot this tree, just by looking at Cottonwood tree bark.

Cottonwood Tree Bark

(Populus deltoides)

Cottonwood Tree bark close up cottonwood tree branch with green cottonwood tree leaves and blue sky background image framed in an oval frame.
  • Color: Young cottonwood trees have yellowish-green bark while the older ones are grayish brown
  • Texture: With furrows and scaly ridges
  • Uses: Cottonwood bark is known for its anti-inflammatory capabilities. If boiled, along with its leaves, it can treat swelling and may treat other injuries such as bruises, wounds, and cuts.

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Ranking

Least Concern


Cottonwood trees belong to the genus Populus and are a type of poplar tree. These massive trees can reach heights of 51 to 81 feet.

What Is a Cottonwood Tree?

Cottonwoods, which are related to poplars,1 played a vital role for indigenous peoples in the Americas. Dugout canoes were made out of their trunks. The horses benefited from the bark as feed, and their owners drank a bitter, therapeutic tea. Both humans and animals relied on the tree for sustenance thanks to its sweet sprouts and inner bark.

Native Americans and subsequent European settlers used the trees as waypoints and gathering sites. Cottonwoods are dioecious, meaning that they develop both male and female structures on distinct trees. Female trees blossom with tiny red flowers in the spring, and their seeds are covered in cotton.

The seeds, which are protected by a cottony fluff, contribute to a serious trash problem. The male cottonwood trees in a forest don’t contribute to the seed supply.

Cottonwood Tree Identification Using Seeds, Leaves, Bark, and Flowers

Cottonwoods3 can be identified in other ways besides producing a flurry of white fuzzy fluff in late spring and early summer.

Cottonwood Tree Leaves

Triangular in shape, cottonwood tree leaves have a cardio base and a tall, pointed tip. Shiny green on top and slightly paler underneath, they can reach lengths of 8 inches and widths of 6 inches.

Two glands can be found towards the tip of each leaf’s long and lean stalk. The leaf’s heterophyllous nature is particularly striking. This is because cottonwood trees generate two distinct sets of leaves: one in the early winter and another later in the year.

The early winter leaves are used for new growth in the spring, while the latter season leaves are used for complete maturity. You can tell the difference between the two types of leaves by their size and the number of teeth they have.

Cottonwood Tree Bark

Cottonwood tree barks range in smoothness, color, and furrowedness as a function of age. It is common for young trees to have smooth, shallowly wrinkled bark that is a pale grey to yellowish green.

Close up photo of the cottonwood bark that shows its rough texture and uneven light brown to dark brown skin tone, with flat ridges that reaches its trunk.

Image: Bluesnap4

As trees age, their bark develops a characteristic gray hue, gets harder, and is more severely furrowed. Bark shoots are brown and angled, and their buds are roughly three-quarters of an inch long. The tree’s bark is covered in greenish-brown resin scales.

Seeds of Cotton Wood Trees

Cottonwood tree seeds are created after blooms are fertilized. The length of a female catkin is typically around 7 inches before she becomes fertilized. After fertilization, elliptical seed capsules with a greenish hue develop.

Time causes the browning of the seeds, and the capsules to split open, releasing 8-11 seeds. The wind may easily disseminate the seeds since they are typically linked to a white cotton-like thread.

At the age of five, cottonwood trees begin generating seeds, and by the time they are fifteen, they are at their most fruitful. The trees will carry on generating seeds for the duration of their existence.

Cottonwood Tree Flowers

Flowers, leaves, bark, and seeds of the cottonwood tree all have distinctive characteristics that make them easily distinguishable from other tree species. Dioecious refers to the fact that the male and female blooms are located on different trees.

The catkins, which are only around 2.9 inches long, contain flowers. Each catkin is around the same length and has anywhere from 16 to 42 buds. The catkins’ flowers bloom before the leaves do and are typically pollinated by the wind.

Catkins, which are comprised of male flowers, protrude from the tree’s branches by a distance of 2.9 to 3.9 inches. Flowers of this type typically have 31-41 stamens and a red and yellow color scheme. Female flowers are greenish and solitary. It’s important to note that the female flowers all have their own individual stems.

Cottonwood Tree Fluff Can Be Problematic

Cottonwoods are notable for the white, fluffy fluff that seems to be released from every branch. These trees are well-known for the silky threads of seeds they produce, which are easily dispersed by the wind and travel large distances.

Many find the cottonwood tree’s fluffy byproduct to be an annoyance. This tree has been called “America’s most reviled” by some. These fine, white strands can lodge in lawns, enter houses, clog up gutters and filters, and spread disease. Cotton falls from these poplars in June and July.

Cottonwood’s white fluff is often connected with allergies, asthma, and nasal congestion in those who suffer from pollen allergies (allergic rhinitis). Nevertheless, the bulk of hay fever episodes is brought on by cottonwood tree pollen. However, research suggests that certain people may be allergic to cotton.

Types of Cottonwood Trees With Pictures and Common Names

Here are the various Populus genus tree species that comprise the cottonwood species.

Eastern Cottonwood

The eastern cottonwood is a fast-growing, big tree that typically grows near water. Its original range extends from the Midwest and Chicago region in the east to the Atlantic coast. As a result of its massive proportions, flimsy wood, and aggressive root system, this tree is better suited for use on expansive lots away from inhabited regions (Image3).

Eastern Cottonwood Tree Recognition

The leaves of eastern cottonwood2 are triangular in shape and have rounded teeth along their margins. When the tree is young, the bark is slick and shimmering white, but as it ages, it turns hard and gray with deep fissures. Flowering male eastern cottonwood trees have a red hue, while female trees produce a greenish-yellow hue.

Black Cottonwood Tree (Black Cottonwood Tree Recognition)

Although black cottonwood is native to Europe and Asia, it can also be found in the United States. It’s notable that black cottonwoods tend to be larger than their eastern counterparts. The black cottonwood is a much smaller tree than its North American relative, reaching a maximum height of only 91 feet. The leaves, which might be triangular in shape, are likewise more diminutive.

Black cottonwood tree identification chart showing its leaves, flowers, tree, seeds, and bark in oval frames.

The coarsely serrated margins of the leaves are another distinguishing feature of black poplars. The leaves of most cottonwood trees have sharp teeth along the margins, but those of black cottonwoods are nearly smooth. In the fall, when their foliage becomes a brilliant golden, black cottonwood trees are a sight to behold.

Black poplars, like all cottonwoods, are rapid growers but yield inferior wood.

Black poplar cottonwoods can be recognized by their glossy green, oblong, and diamond-shaped leaves with fine teeth. The grayish brown bark has deep furrows and is harsh to the touch. In the case of the black poplar, both the male and female trees will display their sexuality by way of their yellow catkins.

Fremont’s Cottonwood (Fremont’s Cottonwood Tree Identification)

The Fremont Cottonwood is a type of cottonwood that is endemic to the southwestern United States and Mexico, where it can be found growing along the banks of rivers, streams, and floodplains. It is a tall tree, reaching heights of 13 to 36 meters, with a trunk diameter of up to 1.7 meters.

Young trees have smooth bark, but older trees develop extensive fissures and pale cracked bark. Its clustered flowers, which are catkins, are long and drooping and bloom between March and April.

The achene-like fruit, carried by the wind and responsible for the tree’s common name, resembles tufts of cotton and hangs from the branches. In many cases, exclusively male plants are distributed.

The veins on the heart-shaped leaves are white, and birds and butterflies both benefit from this plant.

Fremont Cottonwoods are resilient and simple to cultivate; all they need to thrive in moist soil and lots of suns. They are not a good choice for small yards because they may grow from 11 to 21 feet in a year and up to 101 feet in height and 36 feet in width when given the right conditions (including enough water).

These trees do well when planted near streams, springs, or other sources of natural water. Unless you put them next to a lawn that gets watered every day, they will need more water than you are likely to want to provide them by artificial irrigation. They are unfazed by infrequent floods. The leaves are gorgeous, and their iridescence in the breeze makes for a breathtaking sight.

This plant can survive almost anything as long as it has adequate water, and it does it reliably and easily.

Fremont cottonwoods are easily recognized by their cordately shaped leaves, which have a heart symbol, roughly serrated margins, and an extended evenly tip. Both the female and male of this species have red flowers, and the bark has a cracked white color.

Lanceleaf Cottonwood (Lanceleaf Cottonwood Tree Identification)

This tree is located at the point where plains and narrow leaf cottonwoods’ native ranges meet. It is endemic to the Rocky Mountains, where it thrives predominantly between 4,501 and 8,501 feet in height.

It’s a fast grower that requires a lot of water and sunlight. Its lovely pyramidal shape is developed rapidly, and it can be used to add shade. The tree grows swiftly to a height of approximately 61 feet, hence it must not be grown beneath electric lines despite being smaller than other poplar trees in Colorado.

It is commonly used as a windbreak due to its thick foliage. The leaves, like those of other cottonwood trees, become a vibrant shade of yellow in the autumn.

The poplar is a high-maintenance tree that requires regular trimming, the removal of fallen branches and fruit, and the treatment for insects and pathogens. It is possible to pass beneath the tree if the lower branches are clipped. Late winter, after the danger of frost has gone, is the perfect time to trim the tree.

It’s important to know that this tree’s weak roots and propensity to send out numerous suckers is why some municipalities forbid its planting.

Leaves have a pointed form and change from a shiny green to a vibrant yellow in the fall.

Cottonwood Tree Applications and Benefits

Cottonwoods, when grown in adequate conditions, are among the most effective shade trees for big gardens and parks. Cottonwood trees are popular among urban foresters for their resilience, low maintenance requirements, and aesthetically pleasing appearance. Due to their ability to retain soil, they are also frequently employed in ecological revitalization projects.

Large parks often plant these trees to serve dual purposes as windbreaks and wildlife magnets. Cottonwood lumber has various uses in the timber business since it is both gentle and resilient. Cottonwood trees can be used to make paper, pulp, and inexpensive packaging materials.

Cottonwood tree bark can differ between species, but now that you know its characteristics, you’ll be able to pick it out anywhere.

Frequently Asked Questions About Cottonwood Tree Bark

What Is the Lifespan of a Cottonwood Tree?

Plains cottonwoods grow to a height of 61-81 feet and live for an average of 71 years. The Old Main Cottonwood stands 109 feet in height and 20 feet in girth at its base. It is anywhere from 136 to 141 years old.

Do Cottonwood Trees Lose Their Leaves?

Cottonwood trees are known for being among the earliest to lose their leaves, which typically occurs before the summer ends.

What Is Cottonwood Good For?

Cottonwood is versatile, and can be used to create a number of wood products, such as pallets and some furniture. However, these trees’ leaves are also edible and there are many health benefits that can be derived from it as well.


1Government of British Columbia. (2022). Black Cottonwood. Government of British Columbia. Retrieved July 9, 2022, from <>

2University of Nebraska–Lincoln. (2022). Cottonwood, Eastern. Nebraska Forest Service. Retrieved July 9, 2022, from <>

3The University of Nebraska–Lincoln. (2022). Eastern Cottonwood – Salicaceae Populus Deltoides. School of Natural Resources Regional & Community Forestry. Retrieved July 9, 2022, from <>

4Bluesnap. Pixabay from <>

5Species Information Image: Green trees on brown field during daytime Photo by Stephanie Klepacki. (2020, May 27) / Unsplash License. Cropped and added text, shape, and background elements. Unsplash. Retrieved July 08, 2022, from <>