Narrowleaf Cottonwood: What Does It Look Like vs Eastern? (Tree Leaf Guide)

A photo of some full-grown Narrowleaf Cottonwood trees situated close to a mountain in an oval frame on green background.

With Cottonwood trees, the Narrowleaf Cottonwood is not quite as broadly discussed as Eastern cottonwood trees. Part of that reason could be that while the Narrowleaf tree sports leaves that turn a similar shade of yellow in the fall, it doesn’t actually produce cotton.5

This lack of fluffy blooms may be why this tree gets less attention than its more famous ‘cousin,’ but, the vertical-growing Narrowleaf cottonwood tree is beautiful in its own right.

Commonly found near streams and other sources of water, where they thrive the most, these trees grow rapidly and are popular for landscaping.

This leaf guide can help you spot them, and also understand the differences between the Narrowleaf Cottonwood tree and the Eastern Cottonwood (and a number of other types of cottonwood trees).

Narrowleaf Cottonwood

(Populus angustifolia)

Narrowleaf Cottonwood tree image in an oval frame on green background.
  • Tree Common Name: Narrowleaf cottonwood
  • Tree Scientific Name: Populus angustifolia
  • Family: Salicaceae
  • Genus: Populus
  • Leaf: Yellow green to dark-green - up to 2 inches long with a finely serrated edge
  • Bark: Thick, coarse, and greyish brown
  • Seed: Generally, 3 mm in length with long, white silky hairs
  • Blossoms: White flowers
  • Fruit: Ovate, light brown, hairless capsules
  • Native Habitat: Western North America
  • Height: 45 to 60 Feet
  • Lifespan: 100 Years (30 years in urban areas)
  • Canopy: Columnar, dense
  • Type: Deciduous
  • Other Names: Willow-leaved Poplar, Narrowleaf Balsam Poplar

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Ranking

Least Concern


Image Credit: Daryl Nolan34

The Narrowleaf Cottonwood tree can also be found far north into Canada where it braves below zero temperatures.

Narrowleaf Cottonwood Identification: Narrowleaf Cottonwood Leaf

In 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition encountered the Narrowleaf cottonwood and saw that horses avoided eating the leaves. A description written by Meriwether Lewis stated that the Narrowleaf cottonwood tree’s only differentiating factor was the shape of its leaves and the thickness and strength of its bark.10

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

The Lewis and Clark expedition also described the Narrowleaf cottonwood’s leaves as being similar to that of the wild cherry leaf.17 Today, the tree’s leaves are described as being slender, with toothed edges, a pale underside, and a yellowish or dark green top side.

They are narrow, and willow-like, with a short petiole, turning pale yellow in the fall.

The leaf stalks are often a faded red and grow up to 1-inch long.18

Identification: Cottonwood Tree Leaf

In contrast to the Narrowleaf cottonwood tree leaf, the Cottonwood tree leaf is wider,16 with a triangular, almost heart-shaped base. Cottonwood tree leaves can grow up to 7 inches long and are bright green on top with a paler shade at the bottom.

Close-up of Narrowleaf cottonwood tree with green leaves attached to red leaf stalks on thin branches.

(Image: Matt Lavin30)

The stalks of the cottonwood tree leaves are longer than that of the Narrowleaf cottonwood and contain two glands at the top side.

Types of Cottonwood Trees

The 3 main species of cottonwood or poplar trees are Eastern cottonwood, Fremont’s cottonwood, and the Black poplar (Black cottonwood).

From these 3 species, hybrid poplars have also been created (mainly with the parent species being cottonwood and Black cottonwood).15 Hybrid poplars are known as P. x euramericana hybrids.

All cottonwoods fall within the willow tree family (Salicaceae).

Cottonwood Poplar Tree

The Cottonwood Tree is also referred to as the cottonwood poplar tree, as it belongs to the poplar genus. It is a very tall tree that produces masses of cotton and has earned its place in history by providing food for the livestock of the early American pioneers. Cottonwood tree wood was often used to build dwellings and carve out canoes, while the bark of these trees was forage for horses.

Cottonwood trees tend to have long leaf stems and rounded edges that are either serrated or smooth.20

Mountain Cottonwood

There are two species of Populus found in the Rocky Mountains, including Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) and the Narrowleaf cottonwood (Populus angustifolia).

The aspen is the most widely spread tree in North America and one of the few deciduous trees able to thrive in a mountainous environment, which is often very harsh. During fall, the green leaves of aspen trees transform into shades of red, orange, and yellow.

The Narrowleaf cottonwood tree is able to grow in sand bars next to streams and other water sources. The Narrowleaf is an important food source for beavers inhabiting the Rocky Mountains and serves as a habitat for trout.19

Narrowleaf Cottonwood Trees: Colorado

In addition to cottonwood trees thriving in the Rocky Mountains, and the Eastern Plains of Colorado situated east of the Rockies, they also grow very well alongside riverbanks and streams.

Wide shot of tall Populus tremuloides trees in a plain with yellow foliage.

(Image: Calibas31)

Cottonwood trees are the tallest native broadleaf trees found in Colorado and the most common deciduous tree at lower elevations.4

In many areas where the flow of the water has been altered, mature cottonwood trees are in decline. The ongoing effect of climate change on Riparian areas, such as drought and overgrazing by livestock, are causing cottonwood trees to die in areas they usually thrive in.

For this reason, measures have been put in place to protect these trees. The benefits of keeping cottonwoods growing in Colorado include the following:

  • Reduction of erosion because the tree roots keep the soil intact
  • Filtering sediment
  • Providing shelter for several species of wildlife
  • Protection against floodwater runoff
  • Increased water infiltration

Most common types of cottonwood trees found in Colorado:24

Tree SpeciesLocation
Narrowleaf cottonwoodEvergreen area of Colorado
Plains cottonwoodEastern Plains of Colorado
Rio Grande cottonwoodWest Slope of Colorado

Broadleaf Cottonwood Tree

The Broadleaf or Plains cottonwood tree is also known to be the largest Broadleaf cottonwood tree in Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico. Broadleaf cottonwood trees are found in the eastern plains up to 6,500 feet,21 and also in some Colorado canyons with an even higher elevation.

Low-angle shot of a tall Black cottonwood tree with thick trunk surrounded by green ferns.

(Image: Beeblebrox32)

Furthermore, the Black cottonwood tree is believed to be the tallest Broadleaf tree in the US.28 Some Black cottonwood trees have been measured at a height of 160 feet and are believed to be capable of growing to a height exceeding 200 feet.

The leaves are bright green on the upper side and have a shade of rust on the underside with a netted appearance. From a distance, the leaves seem to sparkle in the wind.

Straight Plains Cottonwood

The Straight Plains cottonwood,6 Populus sargentii ‘Jeronimus’, or just Plains cottonwood tree, Populus deltoides ssp. monilifera is one of the most common trees found on the plains of Wyoming.

The tree gets its name from its triangular, shiny leaves which sport long, flattened petioles that cause the leaves to flap against one another when the wind rustles through them.13

The Straight Plains cottonwood tree also grows abundantly in Cheyenne, the capital of Wyoming, and these trees once provided wood for the inhabitants of the Great Plains. The settlers built their huts, cabins, and canoes using Straight Plains wood, and knew that whenever they found a grove of these cottonwood trees, they would also find a supply of water nearby.

Today the Plains cottonwood grows along rivers in Wyoming, cooling the water with the shade their massive trunks and widespread branches provide.

A centuries-old cottonwood tree still stands in the Texas Panhandle, named ‘The Landmark Cottonwood,’ which used to be a landmark for buffalo hunters and stage drivers in the late 19th century. In later years, the vicinity of the cottonwood tree became a popular campsite for those who carried mail back and forth.3

In 2022, the “Old Main Cottonwood” that stood on the Norlin quad of the University of Colorado was chopped down at the age of 142 years. The Plains cottonwood survived both World Wars but was beginning to show its age below the surface of the soil.

Plains Cottonwood Vs Eastern Cottonwood

The Plains cottonwood tree is the western subspecies of the more well-known Eastern cottonwood tree. The leaves of the Plains cottonwood are smaller than the Eastern cottonwood and the edges of the leaves are more jagged than that of the Eastern cottonwood.

Plains Cottonwood Bark

The bark of the Plains cottonwood tree is smooth when the tree is still young, with a light gray to yellowish-green color. As the tree ages, the bark becomes very thick, deeply furrowed, and darker gray.8

Highland Cottonwood Tree

The Highland cottonwood tree, Populus acuminata x sargentii, is a smaller and straighter version of the Plains cottonwood tree. This tree is a cross between acuminata and sargentii.

Where Do Cottonwood Trees Grow?

Cottonwood trees are found throughout North America, Europe, and the western areas of Asia. In the US, they are found in the eastern, central, and southwestern states, with poplar cottonwoods growing on the east coast of southern Canada as well as north-eastern Mexico. The Eastern cottonwood and Black cottonwood trees are of commercial importance in the US.22

Wide angle shot of an Eastern Cottonwood tree with its ash gray bark and green leaves.

(Image: Matt Lavin33)

Cottonwood trees also grow on the southern and southeastern coasts of Alaska.26 Balsam poplar trees are found in the interior of Alaska. Both species of trees hold value in the state of Alaska as it is used for fuel, wood, lumber, and pulp.

Lifespan: Cottonwood Tree

The average cottonwood tree lives between 70 to 100 years. In an ideal environment, however, cottonwood trees are expected to reach a lifespan of anywhere from 200 to 400 years.

The Balmville Tree was felled in 2015 at an age of 315 years, making it the oldest living cottonwood in the US at the time of its felling.12

Oldest Cottonwood Tree

The world’s oldest cottonwood tree groves are located in British Columbia, Canada. The Black cottonwood trees are situated near Fernie and were discovered in 2003. The most ancient trees in this grove have been estimated to be over 400 years old.Narrowleaf Cottonwood tree growth chart showing full grown Narrowleaf Cottonwood tree on a line graph with Narrowleaf Cottonwood tree age on the x-axis and Narrowleaf Cottonwood tree height on the y-axis.

It is believed that because the surrounding valley protects the cottonwoods from high winds, they have also been protected from damage and from weakening rapidly with age.1

Cottonwood Tree Problems

Besides being known for growing weaker with age, cottonwood trees face a host of other problems in the form of disease and pests.9

Cottonwood Tree ProblemsSymptoms
Poplar tentmakerHeavy defoliation
Redhumped caterpillarRagged, dying leaves
Cottonwood leaf beetleDamaged, skeletonized leaves
Oystershell scalesDead twigs and branches
Twig prunersDry and dying branches
AphidsBlack mold, disfigured leaves
Carpenter wormsWeakened branches
Cottonwood borerGirdling, dying or dead shoots

Spiritual Significance of Cottonwood Tree: Meaning of Cottonwood

Many native tribes have attached a spiritual significance to the cottonwood tree. It is believed that cottonwood symbolizes hope, healing, and transformation. Native Americans also believe that the shade of a cottonwood tree acts with intelligence and can bring healing as well as resolve intense conflicts.23

While cottonwood generally refers to a poplar tree that produces seeds covered in cottony hairs, native tribes in the Southwest US believe that cottonwood has a deeper meaning. The Apache, Hopi, and Navajo tribes believe the cottonwood tree to be a symbol of the sun and would use the roots of the tree to carve out kachina dolls.

Kachina dolls signify the connection between Southwestern Native American tribes and nature. These beautifully created dolls are given to young girls and new brides to teach them about katsinam, which are the immortal beings that control the rail and other parts of the natural world.

Cottonwood Seeds Meaning

A well-known indigenous American legend tells the story of a cottonwood tree giving birth to the stars by growing star seeds within its branches.

When the buds start growing, they take on the shape of five-pointed stars and are eventually released into the air when the cottonwoods let go of their seeds. It is also believed that the stars make the branches of cottonwood trees their home during the winter season.

Whenever a higher branch is broken, it reveals a five-pointed bud within, which is known as the home of the star seeds.7

Cottonwood Tree: Magical Properties

The cottonwood tree is believed to have magical properties. The Cheyenne and Arapaho have their own magical version of the stars legend, which says that because all things in the universe come from Mother Earth, stars are formed deep within the Earth’s surface.

Once they are ready to be revealed, they start drifting along just below the surface in search of a cottonwood tree that is believed to possess magical roots. Once the earthly stars enter the roots of the cottonwood tree, they work their way upwards until they end up in the twigs at the ends of the highest branches.

Here, the stars wait until the ‘spirit-of-the-night-sky’ needs more lights in the heavens and calls upon the Wind Spirit to shake loose and break off the twigs of the cottonwood tree. As the twigs break, the stars pop out and take their place in the canopy overhead.11

Cottonwood Tree: Medicinal Uses

In addition to the belief that the cottonwood tree has magical properties, native communities also believed that the cottonwood is essential in treating a variety of ailments.

The Iroquois people believed that the cottonwood tree could kill a worm infestation in adults and relieve the pain of arthritis. They also created a decoction from the bark of cottonwood trees to help relieve constipation.

The Menominee people would take the buds of the cottonwood tree, dip them in fat, and apply it to the nostrils of those suffering from a head cold. They also made their own infusion from these buds dipped in fat and used it as an ointment for superficial wounds.

Native elders in Canada still consider cottonwood to be an unmissable part of illness and ailment treatment. They often use various parts of cottonwood trees to aid in digestive and gynecological issues.

Many herbalists today, still use the cottonwood tree for various remedies,27 including the much-loved Balm of Gilead which is made from the buds of the cottonwood tree. Balm of Gilead is believed to have anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and anti-microbial properties.

Cottonwood Tree: Symbolism

Cottonwood trees once symbolized the end of the journey from the Midwest when their highest branches became the most recognizable points on the horizon.

It was also a sacred tree to many native communities in the West and was regarded as holy by the Sioux because it could thrive where other trees struggled to take root.

Therefore, the Sioux people always chose the cottonwood tree for their Sun Dance ceremony and considered the rustling of the cottonwood leaves to be a continuous prayer to the Great Spirit. The Sun Dance was meant to connect people to their star ancestors.

In modern times, the cottonwood tree is still a symbol of the wisdom of the ancient peoples, and the hope of what the future may bring.14

Cottonwood Tree: Native American Beliefs

There are other long-standing Native American beliefs about the cottonwood tree as well.

An Arapaho legend tells the story of a young girl named Sapana who climbed a tall cottonwood into the sky. Once in the sky, she was put to work by a porcupine who made her skin buffalo hides.

The girl was eventually guided back to Earth by a hawk and a buzzard and was rewarded for their bravery by the Arapaho people who regularly left a buffalo carcass for the buzzards and hawks to feed on.

The sheer length of the tree in this legend refers to the Native American belief that the cottonwood tree is spiritual in nature and considered to be the Tree of Life.

Because of the aforementioned belief that cottonwood trees have the ability to intervene and resolve conflict, early explorers who were aware of this belief would often hurl a cannonball through a cottonwood tree. They did this to demonstrate their power and to try and force native people to realize that their weapons were far more powerful than a spiritual tree.

Native American Beliefs About Trees

Native American peoples have several beliefs about trees in general,25 not just cottonwood trees. The Cherokee, in particular, refer to trees as the Standing People and believes that all trees symbolize permanence and longevity.

Northwestern Native tribes revered the cedar tree and associated it with protection and prayer. The boughs of these trees were used to cleanse homes and some parts of the cedar tree were burned to drive out negative energy. Pieces of the tree were stored in medicine pouches to keep illness away.

The Lenape tribe is devoted to a single tree, named the Sacred Oak that stands in the Oley Valley of Pennsylvania. The legend of the Sacred Oak has it that a powerful Lenape chief traveled to the tree to pray to the Great Spirit that his sick wife be saved.

She was indeed healed when he returned to the village. The chief begged for help at the Sacred Oak again years later when his people were attacked by a hostile tribe. War was averted and from then on, the tree was treated as a shrine. The Sacred Oak is also believed to cure any and all illnesses.

Whether a cedar tree, oak tree, Black cottonwood, or Narrowleaf cottonwood tree, Native American people have been expressing their gratitude and love for all trees for many centuries and continue to do so in modern times.

Frequently Asked Questions About Narrowleaf Cottonwood

What Is the Most Common Type of Narrow Leaf Tree?

The most common type of narrow leaf tree includes willow trees and the Narrowleaf cottonwood tree, which falls in the willow tree family.

Narrowleaf Cottonwood Identification: What Is the Easiest Way To Identify a Narrowleaf Cottonwood?

Narrowleaf cottonwoods are easily identified by their long,29 narrow leaves that end in a pointed tip. These leaves have finely serrated edges and are a bright yellow-green color at the top with a paler shade of green at the bottom.

Is There a Green Leaf Cottonwood Tree Species?

While cottonwood trees generally have green leaves, there are no tree species specifically named the Green Leaf Cottonwood.

How Long Do Cottonless Cottonwood Trees Live?

Hybrid cottonwood trees are generally sterile and cottonless varieties that fare well in colder climates but are susceptible to canker. The lifespan of cottonless cottonwood trees is around 40-50 years, but many of them do not pass the 30-year mark.

Which Two Non-Native Trees Have Replaced the Cottonwood?

Because cottonwood forests have suffered tree harvesting, disease, agricultural decline, and land clearing, two non-native trees are being planted to replace them: Saltcedar and Russian olive.

Are Cottonwood Trees Dangerous?

Cottonwood trees have the potential to be dangerous in the sense that they tend to rot from the inside out without showing any signs of decay on the outside.2 This means that the tree is weakening and can topple over at any moment, causing property damage and even bodily harm.


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30Featured Image: Cottonwood, az, usa, and water in Cottonwood, United States Photo by Pamela Beane. (2022, April 6) / Unsplash License. Cropped and added text, shape, and background elements. Unsplash. Retrieved February 7, 2024, from <>

31Matt Lavin. (CC BY-SA 2.0). Resized. Flickr. Retrieved from <>

32Calibas. (CC BY-SA 3.0). Resized. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from <>

33Beeblebrox. (CC BY-SA 3.0). Resized. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from <>

34Matt Lavin. (CC BY-SA 2.0). Resized. Flickr. Retrieved from <>

35Species Information Image: Photo 330215095 (Narrowleaf Cottonwood) Photo by Daryl Nolan. (2023, June 29) / CC0 1.0 DEED | CC0 1.0 Universal. Cropped and added text, shape, and background elements. iNaturalist Canada. Retrieved January 17, 2024, from <>