Eastern Cottonwood Tree Actually a Willow Tree? (Identification, Leaf, Bark)

A photo of a mature multi-trunk Eastern Cottonwood tree in an oval frame on green background.

The Eastern cottonwood tree is native to North America and grows at least 6 feet per year, making it one of the fastest-growing trees throughout the eastern,9 central, and southwestern US. It is also the fastest-growing and tallest tree found in the state of Iowa.

But, is it actually a willow tree?

Yes. The Eastern Cottonwood tree is part of the willow family of tree species.

Eastern cottonwood trees are deciduous, with a surface root system that can extend into the earth as deep as 15 feet, depending on how far the water source is. These trees once provided North Americans with sturdy wood to build their canoes, and European settlers with attractive and strong materials to build barns and houses.

Many early settlers used the Eastern cottonwood as a beacon or landmark for gatherings, or to mark trails because they are easy to spot from a distance.

Check out it’s characteristics.

Eastern Cottonwood Tree Guide

(Populus deltoides)

Eastern Cottonwood tree image in an oval frame on green background.
  • Tree Common Name: Eastern cottonwood
  • Tree Scientific Name: Populus deltoides
  • Family: Salicaceae
  • Genus: Populus L.
  • Leaf: Triangular, alternate leaves with curved teeth and flat petiole
  • Bark: Yellow-green and smooth to the touch on young trees. Gray-brown and furrowed on older trees
  • Seed: White, fluffy balls
  • Blossoms: Long, plump catkins
  • Fruit: Elliptical capsules filled with seed
  • Native Habitat: North America including Great Plains
  • Height: 70 to 100 Feet
  • Lifespan: Potential to live between 200-400 years in ideal conditions
  • Canopy: Oblong, dense
  • Type: Deciduous
  • Other Names: Poplar, Necklace Poplar, Southern Cottonwood, Carolina Poplar, Eastern Poplar, Alamo

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Ranking

Least Concern


It is believed that indigenous Americans fashioned their tepees after the shape of the cottonwood leaf. They also used the wood to construct lodge poles and keep their fires burning. The leaves of cottonwoods were used to make herbal teas and for animal fodder.

But is the Eastern cottonwood tree actually a willow tree? Not really, they’re just part of the same family, Salicaceae.

Identification: Eastern Cottonwood

Eastern cottonwood trees tower over several other species of trees and do indeed form part of the Willow tree family. They grow throughout the Great Plains, south-central US, and the Midwest, both in dry soil and along river bottoms.

While this type of tree is perfect for shading purposes, it is not a popular landscaping tree as it sheds massive amounts of pollen during spring, worsening allergy symptoms for those prone to pollen allergies. Furthermore, these trees are not particularly sturdy.

Eastern cottonwood trees are identified by the following characteristics:10

Eastern Cottonwood Leaf

The leaves of the Eastern cottonwood are broad and triangular (almost heart-shaped). The base of the leaves is jagged or toothed. The upper side of each leaf is dark green and the underside is pale green; these leaves change color in the fall, turning into a bright shade of yellow.

Related Reading: Cottonwood Tree Leaf: How to Spot a Cottonwood (All 4 Types) & Eat Them

Eastern Cottonwood Bark

While the wood of these tall trees is usually brittle and good for the manufacturing of low-value products and items,8 the bark is extremely thick with mature trees easily identified by the furrowed ridges lining the bark. The thick bark covers and protects the weaker interior wood from damage.

Different Species of Cottonwoods

Cottonwoods branch off into 3 different subspecies:

  • Eastern Cottonwood: Found in Eastern US, Southern Canada, and Mexico.
  • Plains Cottonwood: Found in Canada, and Central US.
  • Rio Grande Cottonwood: Found in the Central-Eastern US.

These 3 subspecies are further broken down into 5 different varieties:

  • Swamp Cottonwood (Populus heterophylla)
  • Lanceleaf Cottonwood (Populus x acuminata)
  • Narrowleaf Cottonwood (Populus Angustifolia)
  • Black Poplar (Populus nigra)
  • Black Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa)

Additional Eastern Cottonwood Tree Characteristics

Eastern cottonwood trees may be native to North America, but they are also found in Europe and Asia. These trees are often used to create a windbreak because of their accelerated growth rate, and their hollow trunks provide adequate shelter for several forms of wildlife. Animals also eat its twigs and bark.

An image of an Eastern Cottonwood tree with a notable amount of brown leaves during the autumn season

(Image: Hans21)

During the 1868/1869 winter campaign against indigenous American tribes, General Custer fed his horses and donkeys bark from the Eastern cottonwood trees that grew south of Arkansas.

The cottonwood tree became the state tree of Kansas in 1937, Wyoming in 1947, and Nebraska in 1972.20

Eastern Cottonwood Height

Being one of the most rapidly growing trees in the US, Eastern cottonwood can reach heights of up to 130 feet. Their trunks can widen to around 6 feet in diameter, which makes the Eastern cottonwood one of the tallest and widest North American hardwood trees.

Down in the Mississippi River bottoms, scientists have observed the Eastern cottonwood growth rate to be up to 15 feet per year, with sustained growth of up to 5 feet in height being the common average.

Tallest Eastern Cottonwood Trees in the World

LocationHeight of Tree
Belgium37.40 m
France34.80 m
US32.52 m
Germany25.00 m

Eastern Cottonwood Scientific Name

The Eastern cottonwood tree, officially known as Populus deltoides, played a significant role in the life of the early pioneer. Cabins were constructed from its soft wood, whenever sturdier wood wasn’t available, and the tree is today known as ‘the pioneer tree of Kansas.2

The scientific subspecies classification of the Eastern cottonwood tree is as follows:

  • Populus deltoides subsp. deltoides, Eastern cottonwood
  • P.d. monilifera (Aiton) Eckenw., the plains cottonwood
  • P.d. wislizeni (S. Watson) Eckenw., the Rio Grande cottonwood3

Eastern Cottonwood Fruit

Individual single-sex Eastern cottonwood trees produce either all female or all male flowers during spring. The leaves of the flowers from catkins that grow up to 3” long. Flowering takes place from February through April.

The male catkins of the Eastern cottonwood tree eventually whither away,13 while the female catkins continue to grow as their fruits develop. When the season turns warm (beginning to mid-summer), the fruits of the female catkins split and release their seeds.

Each of the fruits produces up to fifty seeds, which are identified by their cottony hairs. These seeds travel with the help of the wind, while the tree itself continues to reproduce through reseeding.

It is important to note that new trees should not be planted near sewers or water pipes, as the roots of the Eastern cottonwood tree continue to grow towards sources of water. Wherever possible, female trees should be planted a considerable distance from homes because the hairs of the seeds tend to clog up gutters and have been known to infiltrate air conditioner filters. The seeds sometimes lead to poor air quality.4

Eastern cottonwood trees, especially young ones, are particularly vulnerable to wintry conditions. Weak branches will likely drop from the tree during windy conditions. They thrive in bright sunlight and wherever there’s an abundance of water.

Eastern Cottonwood Seeds

One Eastern cottonwood tree can be responsible for up to 25 million seeds being released into the air.

These seeds are only viable for around two weeks, and because there are blown about to all sorts of locations, the chances of even just one seed germinating are low.

As water levels drop, the cottonwood seeds usually settle on freshly exposed gravel and sand banks dropping the germinating percentage to zero.

If, however, some of the seeds manage to land on moist, exposed soil, the germination success rates inches upwards.

Fortunately, it takes only a day for Eastern cottonwood tree seeds to sprout. Over the following 24 hours, these seeds can grow up to a quarter of an inch. Unfortunately, even when conditions are ripe for growth, most seedlings are destroyed by animals, strangled by invasive tree and plant species, or frozen during snowy weather.

During this very early stage of growth, any type of drought will also lead to the demise of the young saplings.

Cottonwood Seeds in the Air

Once cottonwood seeds from female trees are suspended in the air and blowing in the wind, they will eventually pile up on the ground, causing unsightly cotton masses that clog up gutters and drains especially during rainy weather.5

Seeing cottonwood seeds in the air means that the pollination period for the cottonwood trees has passed, and fewer allergens are now being produced. Pollen from cottonwood trees is usually released just before the seeding season begins.

The so-called ‘cotton blizzard’ typically lasts only a few weeks, while the seed is being distributed by the wind.

Eastern Cottonwood Lifespan

Once the saplings manage to avoid being trampled and eaten by herbivores and thrive in their rooted environment, they shoot up at a fast pace. Eastern cottonwood trees have a general lifespan of up to 100 years, but this can extend to around 400 years if the surrounding conditions are just right.

Some of the Oldest Eastern Cottonwood Tree in the World

CountryAge of Tree
US192 years
Argentina147 years
Canada72 years

Related Reading: How to Tell How Old a Tree Is (Trick Works Every Time on All Tree Types)

Eastern Cottonwood Growth Rate

As mentioned above, the Eastern cottonwood tree is a fast-growing species and under ideal conditions, it can grow up to 8 ft. in a single year.

When soil moisture conditions are perfect, the Eastern cottonwood usually grows into a well-formed and very tall tree, reaching heights of up to 190 ft.

However, as also mentioned earlier, the tree’s roots have the capability of searching out water in sewer lines and water pipes, which almost always wreaks havoc with these systems. Furthermore, because the roots grow shallow, they tend to break through the sidewalks and tails of the environment the tree stands in, creating further hazards.

Eastern Cottonwood Size

Despite their shallow root system, Eastern cottonwood trees generally grow up to 100 ft.11 Their average height over a time span of 20 years is as follows:

Eastern US55-65 ft.
Central US50-60 ft.
Western US45-55 ft.

Eastern Cottonwood Uses

The Eastern cottonwood tree is incredibly important to the ecosystem. It transforms energy derived from the sun into food energy, providing sustenance for several animal species including field mice, deer, and rabbits. Birds build nests high up in the branches.

The tree is known as a pioneer species,16 which means it was one of the first to grow near water which started an ecological chain leading to greater biodiversity.

While the wood of Eastern cottonwood is no longer extensively used to build houses and barns, cottonwood is today used for pulp and even to manufacture low-cost furniture.

When To Pick Cottonwood Buds

Species of cottonwood trees can be and are used interchangeably. Cottonwood buds usually grow on cottonwood trees between late winter and early spring, and they release their fragrance as soon as the weather turns warm.

Before the leaf buds open, a drop of red to yellow resin is discharged. When pinching the buds, if the resin is visible, it would be the perfect time to harvest the cottonwood buds.

The largest buds usually grow on the tallest branches, which means some effort is required in getting to them. Often, windstorms or thunderstorms aid in blowing the higher buds downwards.

Buds that have blown off the branches, or have been picked off, should be stored in plastic bags to preserve the fragrance and quality.

Male catkins on Eastern cottonwood trees contain high amounts of vitamin C, which means they can be eaten raw. Some prefer to add them to soups or stews.

How To Make Cottonwood Oil

Cottonwood oil and salve is a popular home remedy used around the world for a variety of ailments.12

The easiest way to extract or make cottonwood oil is to place freshly picked cottonwood buds in a slow cooker or double boiler and douse them with double as much olive oil.

The mixture should be heated on the lowest heat setting for at least 5 hours after which the oil can be extracted and used as is.

Another method of making cottonwood oil and an accompanying salve is filling a glass jar halfway with fresh cottonwood buds and filling the jar almost to the brim with olive oil.

The jar should be covered with a towel or cloth and left undisturbed for 6 weeks, save for swirling the oil a few times a week.

When the 6 weeks have passed, the buds should be strained with a mesh strainer and the oil pressed out. Once again, the oil can be used as is, or be turned into a medicinal salve.

Turning the oil into salve requires melting 2 tablespoons of beeswax over low heat, adding a cup of cottonwood oil, and stirring over low heat until combined. Adding a few drops of preferred vitamin oil, usually, vitamin E will help solidify the salve after it is poured into jars.

Cottonwood oil is believed to soothe arthritic pain including painful joints and cottonwood oil salve is often used for minor burns and wounds.

Black Cottonwood Range

Black cottonwood trees are a variety of cottonwoods that belong to the Willow family (Salicaceae). The scientific name for these trees is Populus trichocarpa and they are also commonly known as western balsam poplars or California poplars.14 The Black cottonwood tree range extends from Kodiak Island to Cook Inlet, from Alaska and British Columbia to Washington, and Oregon to the southern California mountains and northern Baja California.

An image of the bottom view of a Black Cottonwood tree, showing the underside of its leaves and branches, as seen from below.

(Image: Olive Titus22)

Black cottonwoods are the largest poplar tree species in western Northern America,17 of which is their native habitat, with an individual tree growing in Willamette Mission State Park holding the world and national records for the largest black cottonwood. The tree stands 47.26 m high and is 8.84 m wide.

The bark of aged black cottonwood trees can become hard enough for a chainsaw to struggle to cut through it. The leaves grow up to an average of 20 cm long, while larger leaves can reach lengths of up to 30 cm. Much like the Eastern cottonwood tree species, the roots of black cottonwoods are known to damage drainage systems and uproot building foundations by drying out the soil below.

Black cottonwood seeds are disseminated during May and June in the states of Oregon and Washington, moving on to Idaho and Montana in July.

Fully-grown Black cottonwood trees are susceptible to rotting and splitting during cold weather and their wood is good for plywood production. In the same fashion as an Eastern cottonwood tree, living Black cottonwood trees are used as makeshift windbreaks.

Eastern Cottonwood Range

The natural range of the Eastern cottonwood tree extends from the streams and bottomlands of southern Quebec all the way to North Dakota and southwestern Manitoba.18 The range further deepens into central Texas where it spreads to northwestern Florida as well as Georgia.

These trees are scarcely spotted along the Gulf Coast and in the Appalachian regions, except for some trees scattered along rivers.

While the species depends on deep, moist sands and a wetter climate, the trees do tolerate dry conditions fairly well. However, they do not grow as tall at elevations of 15 to 20 ft. above water level. Throughout the species’ range, the Eastern cottonwoods are exposed to dramatic temperature changes and a lack of rainfall, which causes the tree roots to wander toward streams.

The fluctuations in temperature and rainfall along the native range of the Eastern cottonwood tree usually mean that less-than-sufficient moisture is available for ideal growth.15

Frequently Asked Questions About the Eastern Cottonwood Tree

What Is the Most Prominent Identification of the Eastern Cottonwood Tree?

Eastern cottonwood trees are most frequently identified by its triangular leaves that have curved or jagged teeth along the edge, as well as the flat stalks and the very thick bark covering the trunk. Even without the leaves, the Eastern cottonwood tree can be identified by the thick cover of cotton seeds produced during summer.

Why Is the Eastern Cottonwood Leaf Important in Indigenous American History?

The shape of the Eastern cottonwood leaf is revered in indigenous American history. The twigs of the cottonwoods are also said to break when more stars are needed by the Spirit-Of-The-Night-Sky who then calls upon the Wind Spirit which in turn releases the twigs from the trees and blows it upwards towards heaven.

Why Is the Eastern Cottonwood Bark So Thick?

The thick bark of a mature Eastern cottonwood tree helps protect the weaker interior wood from external damage.

What Do Eastern Cottonwoods Look Like?

The Eastern cottonwood tree is covered in silvery bark that becomes deeply fissured as the tree ages. The twigs are yellow; while the male catkins are deep reddish-purple, and the female catkins are bright green.

Is It Possible for Eastern Cottonwoods To Grow in Dry Soil?

If the soil is semi-dry, the Eastern cottonwood tree will continue to grow. In drought conditions and during its first few seasons, the tree must be watered weekly to keep it from dying.6

Can an Eastern Cottonwood Tree Be Planted Close to Houses?

It is best for Eastern cottonwood trees to be planted a minimum of 25 feet away from all structures including houses, offices, and schools. The surface root system of these trees will eventually break through foundations and sidewalks, causing damage to structures.

Can Eastern Cottonwood Cotton Be Used for Personal Purposes?

While it is possible to use cottonwood cotton as the inner for bedding, it does not have the same level of strength as regular cotton.

What Is the Populus deltoides Common Name?

The common name for Populus deltoides is Eastern cottonwood.

Are Cottonwood Trees Dangerous?

Cottonwoods are often seen as a nuisance and even dangerous when planted near homes and other buildings. Because they are not very sturdy trees and become weaker as they age, cottonwood trees can eventually topple over, causing property damage. Their shallow roots are also easily uprooted with minimal stress.

What Is the Cottonwood Tree Lifespan?

Cottonwood trees typically live up to 100 years but have a potential lifespan of 400 years.7


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