What Does a Cottonwood Tree Look Like? Use This Easy Identification Trick

Woman looks at a tree covered with cotton blooms and wonders what does a cottonwood tree look like and how can I learn about cottonwood tree identification?

What does a cottonwood tree look like? This is an easy question to answer during the spring when the cottony blossoms cover the branches or during the fall when the golden leaves spread color.

But, at other times, knowing the answer to what does a cottonwood tree look like can be tricky. Fortunately, there’s an easy identification trick.

Standing at over 100 feet, a mature cottonwood tree can be a majestic sight to behold. It has a canopy that is just as wide as the tree is tall, and it continues to add an additional 6 feet of height per year for its relatively short life span of 100 years.

The trunk of the cottonwood tree has a span of up to 6 feet, and in the summer months, the leaves are bountiful and lush, while in the winter months, they morph into a glorious yellow-gold color before tumbling lazily to the ground.

Historically, the cottonwood tree was used by Native Americans to fashion canoes due to the pliability of the trunk, and for weary settlers trudging across the plains, they offered shade where there was none for miles.

The way to recognize a cottonwood tree is by it’s heart-shaped leaves, distinctive bark and the sound it makes when the wind whistles through the branches.

What Does Cottonwood Look Like? Cottonwood Tree Identification

Related to the Poplar tree family, the trick that Native Americans used as far back as the 1800s to identify a Cottonwood tree, was by the leaves. Not only do they have an unusual triangular shape with serrated edges, but they have a tendency to emit a unique sound in a breeze.

That sound is unmistakable, but what makes them even more unique is that they are edible.

Cottonwood Tree Leaves: Edible but Bitter (Picture of Cottonwood Tree Leaf)

The taste is a little bitter, but the cottonwood tree leaf does have a high nutritional content, containing amino acids greater than those found in rice, corn, or even wheat.

A branch from a cottonwood tree with triangular-shaped, bright green leaves, situated in a forest with fallen branches on the ground.

(Image: lanechaffin 9)

A possible way to reduce the bitterness would be by boiling, but care has to be taken not to overboil and lose the nutritious benefits.

What Does a Young Cottonwood Tree Look Like? (Picture of a Cottonwood Tree)

As a young seedling, the bark of the tree is smooth and yellowish-green in color. As the tree ages, the bark becomes more furrowed and the color matures into a grayish brown.

The cottonwood itself is easily recognizable as the cylindrical or round cluster of pods known as catkins. They vary in color depending on the variety of cottonwood trees and also throughout the seasons.4

Their role is to shelter the seeds within until they are ready to be released into the wild.

When that time arrives, the flowering process begins with the distinctive white cotton bursting free. This is a clear sign that pollination has occurred and the release of the numerous seeds is imminent.

When Do Cottonwood Trees Bloom? (Picture of Cottonwood Tree in Bloom)

This blooming season starts at the beginning of spring, with the catkins bursting at the seams. When they finally break open, the seeds adhere to the cotton, and the dispersal process starts as soon as a breeze passes by, launching the hundreds of seeds into the air.

It is an impressive snow-storm-like sight to behold, but for those that suffer from allergies, the pollen can wreak havoc.

The wind-assisted seeds can travel for miles, but despite the spectacle, some states have restricted the planting of cottonwood trees because of the multitude of seeds seasonally littering the streets and blanketing lawns.

Another reason is down to the roots. They have a voracious thirst when it comes to seeking out water no matter what it is encased in, namely nearby water pipes, or even sewers. If planted too close to a wall or a house, they have been known to kick the odd wall down.

It is advisable to seek out advice if considering planting one.

What Does a Cottonwood Tree Look Like: Facts, Types, and Locations

As a species, the cottonwood tree thrives in conditions where the moisture in the soil is high, like along rivers, but they can also survive for short periods in flooded areas, and conversely, in quite challenging conditions as long as the environment is humid and exposed to sunlight.

Although similar in stature, there are some distinctive features among the three types across America:

Types of Cottonwood Trees

There are four common types that are spread across Europe, western Asia, and North America, but the three main types prevalent in America are Eastern, Black, and Freemont.

1. Eastern Cottonwood Tree: How Tall Do Cottonwood Trees Grow?

This species is one of the largest hardwood trees in the northern section of America, and it is very popular in southern Canada and in the northeast of Mexico. This version also grows in the eastern, southwest, and central states of the United States to a minimum height of 65 feet.

The distinctive leaves on this mammoth Eastern Cottonwood tree have irregular serrated edges and grow to about 4 inches long.

Upward view of an eastern cottonwood tree, with its rough bark and sprawling branches with a canopy of green leaves against a clear blue sky.

(Image: lanechaffin 10)

It is in the summer months that the female species produce colorful flowers that are cylindrical in shape, slowly growing small seeds within that are eager to burst free into the world.

When they are ripened and released, the cotton strands attached to them aid in the dispersal process,2 so they land far and wide; but they can be overwhelming in an urban setting.

When first released, the sight is a wonder to behold, until the realization dawns that within one season, 40 million seeds could be dispersed within a small neighborhood zone.

Related Reading: Narrowleaf Cottonwood: What Does It Look Like vs Eastern?

2. Black Cottonwood

Originally a European native, this cottonwood is now in Asia, Africa, as well as various states in the west of the US.

This version is the baby of the bunch as its maximum height stretches to a maximum height of about 95 feet towards the sky, yet is still a glorious sight to behold on a sunlit day.

Again, it is only the female with its tubular-shaped flowers, vibrant red in color and covered in whisps of cotton, that produces seeds, ready to be dispersed as soon as they have matured.

3. Freemont’s Cottonwood

This particular cottonwood tree is named after John Charles Frémont, a 19th-century military officer and explorer who, apart from unsuccessfully running for president in 1856, brought attention to this version of the cottonwood tree first in southern Utah and then in California.

Freemont’s Cottonwood, now profligate in states such as Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada, is extremely similar to the Eastern Cottonwood, but the distinguishing features are the smaller leaf sizes, which are less jagged around the edges.

Branch of a Fremont cottonwood tree with its distinctively shaped leaves against a bright blue sky background.

(Image: Jesse Rorabaugh11)

But what really sets it apart is the dizzying color changes.

The changes occur over just the two months of March and April when the elongated catkin flowers are bursting at the seams from the seeds within. The kaleidoscopic color display ranges from green to a pale yellow, to a bright orange hue, and sometimes to a breathtaking deep red.

Without a doubt, it’s a sight to see.

Owing to this spectacular color change, this variety is often proudly planted in front yards, or as a showpiece in newly restored project areas. For providing shade and as a windbreaker, the Freemont is hard to beat, and its ability to prevent soil erosion is an added bonus.

Discovering what does a cottonwood tree look like is not straightforward as there are more than one species, such as the Narrowleaf cottonwood tree, and each different in some ways yet similar in many.

What Makes the Cottonwood Tree Star and What Other Uses Do They Have?

A cottonwood tree star is found inside the tree itself. When you find dry, brittle cottonwood tree limbs that have fallen, you may notice some ‘wrinkles’ on the bark.

Those wrinkles make a distinctive star shape when you snap the twig in two.

In fact, there’s an interesting fable about this ‘star’ inside the cottonwood, and it’s another way that you can answer the question, what does a cottonwood tree look like.

Cottonwood Tree Fluff: Can Cotton Be Made From Cottonwood Trees?

The primary use of the wispy cotton strands on the flowers is to aid in dispersing the seeds further than just the base of the tree.

Unfortunately, the fluffy cotton fiber on cottonwood trees is different than that on cotton shrubs and is more suitable for stuffing pillows than being spun for clothing.3

Some very patient spinners, however, have been known to collect the woolen wisps, wash, clean, and twist the fibers into yarn to make a variety of items.

Cottonless Cottonwood Tree Facts (Picture of Cottonwood Tree Bark)

All of the cottonwood tree varieties have the ability to mature very quickly. This rapid growth spurt actually makes the wood weaker, and, even though the trunk is solid and thick, sometimes the branches break off.

This weakness made the cottonwood tree bark easier to carve and was a boon for Native Americans when they fashioned canoes out of it back in the 19th century. From the roots, they made masks, ceremonial objects, and even dolls.

Medicinally, the bark and the buds were crushed and combined with substances like oil or alcohol to form a natural pain reliever to be applied topically or ingested. Further traditional combinations of the buds, the bark, and the leaves were concocted to break fevers.

There were no limits to the uses that the versatile Cottonwood tree wasn’t put to, with an effective glue being produced and even a yellow dye made from the sticky resin scraped from the buds as well as crushing the buds themselves.

Nowadays, due to its lightweight nature, wood is ideal for producing quality paper products. It is also good for printing, whether transformed into paper or crafted into boxes, crates, pallets, or interior furniture.

Herbalists still use elements from these trees for natural anti-inflammatory treatments and skin irritations.

What Is the Legend of the Cottonwood Tree? Indian Folklore About Cottonwood Tree

The uses of the cottonwood tree are numerous.

Settlers traveling across the prairies in the mid-1800s would specifically seek out cottonwood trees as they were a clear sign that water would be present, as well as shelter from the winds.

When those weary pioneers finally found a plot of land to settle, they would often base their decision on the close proximity of these trees. Like the Native Americans, they quickly recognized the benefits of having a cottonwood tree as a neighbor.

As for the Native Americans, from the deepest root to the uppermost leaf, they found a way to utilize virtually every inch of this behemoth.

The roots themselves were a consistent food source for them and also for feeding their animals, while the bark itself was fed to their horses and made into medicinal herbs.1

The leaves were often eaten despite the bitter taste, and the children were known to chew the seeds as if they were chewing gum. Nothing was wasted.

Cottonless Cottonwood Tree Growth Rate

Unbeknownst to many climate activists, the cottonwood tree is a boon for the fight against climate change. For an activist, finding out what does a cottonwood tree look like can be a game-changer.

Why? Because as soon as one is planted, it starts to grow at a phenomenal rate. This continuous growth spurt of more than 6 feet a year weakens the wood but makes this tree the fastest growing in North America.

Their incredible growing capacity means, that if enough of them are planted, they will be a natural enemy of carbon dioxide, sucking this ozone-damaging substance out of the air to combat climate change, if not reverse it completely.

So, its ability to grow rapidly is great for the climate but weakens the wood, which tends to shorten its life span.

Due to this weakness, the trunk is easily damaged and the high branches have a tendency to break off regularly. Fortunately, this also means that the wood is ideal for producing paper products, pallets, and numerous other wooden furnishings.

If the cottonwood tree didn’t grow back so quickly, all these benefits would be a problem. As it is, its ability to grow rapidly makes it an invaluable renewable resource that is underappreciated.

What Does a Cottonwood Tree Look Like? And the Cottonless Cottonwood Tree Pests

Bedecked with a healthy head of green leaves in the summer and a golden brown in the winter, the cottonwood tree is a picture of health. When the seeds start to sprout, the tree is further transformed into a stunning sight.

Like any plant, the Cottonwood tree is prone to pests and diseases that can cause health problems that can not only hinder growth but can prove fatal.

The Cottonwood Leaf Beetle

This leaf-feeding beetle is a scourge on the life of a cottonwood tree.

It has a tendency to lurk either beneath fallen debris at the base of the tree or patiently under the bark itself until the first buds start to grow at the start of spring.

Surprisingly, they are not a concern in forests, but in urban settings, they seem to flourish, and as soon as the leaves start to sprout, they pounce. If left unchecked, they can devour the leaves of a healthy tree by up to 70% very quickly.

The adult beetle male is smaller than the female at 6mm,7 but their size is not where the danger lies for the majestic cottonwood tree. That danger arises two weeks after mating when the 25 newly laid eggs mature into larvae that attack the new buds, the fresh leaves, and the twigs ferociously.

If left unchecked, these unwanted hosts can defoliate a healthy tree, leaving it mortally wounded as its ability to complete the photosynthetic process is hindered. If this occurs, the cottonwood tree’s growth can be stunted and its life span shortened.

To combat this blight, the use of chemical insecticides are needed to eliminate this pest, or a cottonwood tree could quickly become doomed.

Cottonwood Tree Galls

Unlike the cottonwood leaf beetle that lurks out of sight before assaulting the tree, the petiole gall aphid hides in plain sight.

During the winter months, the 2mm pest appears as a bump on the twigs. This is called a gall, and it acts as temporary housing for several petiole aphids to lie in wait until the time to hatch is ripe.

They mature at the start of spring and go on a feeding frenzy for two weeks. Fortunately, they do not cause as much foliage damage as the cottonwood beetle, even though they are numerous, and their impact on the tree generally is not fatal.

However, they are a pest that the tree can do without. So how to get rid of them?

When entombed in the galls, insecticides are useless against them. Treatment, when they are hatched, can be in the form of trying to dislodge particular colonies of the gall aphids by spraying a horticultural oil or a forceful spray of water.

Using a microbial insecticide regularly is an option to deter re-infestation.

Cottonwood Tree Diseases

Fungal infections that may not affect other trees can be both trivial and fatal to a cottonwood tree if unnoticed or left untreated. That’s why knowing what does a cottonwood tree look like can be crucial if there is a tree in your garden and you’re not exactly sure what species it is.

Distinguishing between the two fungal infections can still be difficult.

The more serious infections target the heart of the tree aggressively when they enter through lacerations in the trunk, often caused by gardening equipment.

Conks that appear on the base of the trunk are harbingers of doom, a clear warning sign that the tree is rotting from the inside. Once this rot sets in completely,6 all hope is lost and it’s just a matter of time before the tree dies.

Cottonwood Tree Problems

The cottonwood tree, like other tree species, is prone to several diseases and pests which can stunt its growth and even be fatal.

Root Rot

When a fungal infection is present in the soil around a cottonwood tree, it can enter through the roots and is virtually impossible to mitigate.

Keen gardeners may observe the leaves rapidly changing from green to bronze within days and drooping sadly. During the summer months, this can go unnoticed, but normally when the problem is recognized, it is far too late and the entire tree needs to be removed.

Treatable Diseases

There are some diseases that affect the branches, as well as the stems and create blemishes on the leaves, but they are generally not life-threatening.

These can be tackled by pruning the affected limb so the disease is completely excised, or by spraying with a copper fungicide on a monthly basis to control the outbreak.

Some fungal infections are merely cosmetic. Mildew-like fungus, for example, may look unsightly if a severe outbreak coats the entire foliage. In that event, just dowsing with copper fungicide alleviates that eyesore very quickly and adds further protection.

Interesting Facts and Factors to Remember for Cottonwood Tree Identification

  1. Animals and insects love to call the cottonwood tree home because of its soft wooden trunk. Insects, small animals such as squirrels, and birds can burrow or hollow out a living space with relative ease and feast on the twigs and even the bark for sustenance.These trees are essential for the health of many ecosystems and the preservation of numerous animal and plant species that are at risk of extinction.8
  2. Due to its fast-growing nature, lumber is inexpensive and is regularly purchased by timber mills because of its constant availability.
  3. Fragrant oils are made from the Eastern Cottonwood species for the cosmetic industry for massage oils and lip balms. The alternative medicine sector also reaps benefits from this species by producing essential oils to treat arthritis and alleviate muscle pain.
  4. The Eastern Cottonwood tree has the longest lifespan of them all,5 averaging about 100 years in good condition. In ideal conditions with fertile soil, they have been known to survive for up to 400 years.
  5. Cottonwood trees need water, a lot of it. The roots of a mature tree, on a daily basis, absorb over 200 gallons of water.

Recap: What Does a Cottonwood Tree Look Like?

Even though the leaves of the Eastern cottonwood tree vary from both the Black cottonwood and the Freemont’s cottonwood tree, they are all recognizable by their similarities. This variance is noticeable in the size of the serrated edges on the leaves, some having a jagged trimming while others have slightly smaller and rounder ridged edging.

The leaf can be as small as 3 inches and grow to an impressive 7 inches at its heart-shaped tip. What they have in common is the triangular shape and the distinguishing flat stalks as well as the similar green hue on one side which is slightly paler on the other.

In the winter months when leaves are absent, identification of a cottonwood tree can be accomplished not only by the girth of the trunk but by its texture and color.

For younger trees across the range, the bark is smooth and thin with a gray/green color. As the tree matures over the decades, the bark becomes wizened, furrowed, and thicker, the color morphing into ash gray.

This species has played an important role in the history of America for centuries, and can now play a vital one against the catastrophe that is climate change to make a cleaner future.

The cottonwood tree is an unsung hero, benefiting millions as a source of food and even a source of pain relief, so knowing how to identify and what does a cottonwood tree look like, can be a great thing to master.

Frequently Asked Questions About What Does a Cottonwood Tree Look Like?

Where Can I Find a Cottonwood Tree for Sale?

Nurseries, garden centers, and even landscaping companies offer the cottonwood tree for sale. They are a popular item as many consumers want a tree that grows fast.

What Sizes Is It Possible To Buy?

The size of a young cottonwood tree is sold by weight ranging from 15 gallons to 45 gallons. These are ideal as, within 6 or 7 years of tender loving care, a fully grown tree of up to 40 feet can be throwing shade in your garden.

Where Do Cottonwood Trees Grow?

Due to their immense thirst for water, cottonwood trees thrive best in marshy areas and along riverbanks where there is a steady supply of water in the soil.

Does Both the Male and Female Cottonwood Tree Produce Cotton?

Only the female produces cotton so, to avoid a yearly cotton clean-up it may be best to purchase a male cottonwood tree that won’t shed white, hard-to-clean-up cotton from your front lawn.

How Big Do Cottonwood Trees Get?

That record-breaking distinction goes to Hastings in New Zealand. This mammoth cottonwood tree has a trunk span of 111 feet and a towering height of 138 feet!

How Long Do Cottonwood Trees Live?

Depending on the environment and the weather conditions, a cottonwood tree has an average life span of between 70-100. This can be exceeded if the conditions are ideal, and they have been known to survive for up to 300-400 years.

How Long Do Cottonwood Trees Lose Their Cotton?

Shedding of the cotton starts between the end of April and the beginning of May. This lasts for a month or two, and then the whole process starts again 8 months later.

Are Cottonwood Trees Dangerous?

Are cottonwood trees dangerous? If not cared maintained properly, the cottonwood tree can pose several hazards. Due to the weakness of the wood from its rapid growth spurts, branches breaking off unexpectedly can cause injury problems to bystanders. Another unforeseen problem, are the shallow roots that occasionally do not provide a solid anchor base, resulting in trees uprooting dangerously in strong storms.


1Charlotte. (2022). A Native Tree With Distinctive Bark. UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. Retrieved September 30, 2022, from <https://ui.charlotte.edu/story/native-tree-distinctive-bark>

2Colorado State University. (2022). When Do Cottonwoods Shed Cotton? PlantTalk. Retrieved September 30, 2022, from <https://planttalk.colostate.edu/topics/trees-shrubs-vines/1758-cottonwood-cotton/>

3Iowa State University. (2022). Eastern Cottonwood. Natural Resource Stewardship. Retrieved September 30, 2022, from <https://naturalresources.extension.iastate.edu/forestry/iowa_trees/trees/eastern_cottonwood.html>

4National Park Service. (2022). Cottonwoods. Sand Creek Massacre. Retrieved September 30, 2022, from <https://www.nps.gov/sand/learn/nature/cottonwoodtrees.htm>

5Plant of the Week: Cottonwood. (2022). U of A Division of Agriculture. Retrieved September 30, 2022, from <https://www.uaex.uada.edu/yard-garden/resource-library/plant-week/cottonwood.aspx>

6Texas A&M Agrilife Extension. (2022). Cotton Root Rot. Texas Plant Disease Handbook. Retrieved September 30, 2022, from <https://plantdiseasehandbook.tamu.edu/problems-treatments/problems-affecting-multiple-crops/cotton-root-rot/>

7UF|IFAS. (2012, April). Cottonwood Leaf Beetle. Featured Creatures. Retrieved September 30, 2022, from <https://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/trees/beetles/cottonwood_leaf_beetle.htm>

8The University of Tennessee Knoxville. (2019, March 5). Climate-Driven Evolution in Trees Alters Their Ecosystems. News. Retrieved September 30, 2022, from <https://news.utk.edu/2019/03/05/climate-driven-evolution-in-trees-alters-their-ecosystems/>

9Photo by lanechaffin . iNaturalist. Retrieved from <https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/113674924>

10Photo by lanechaffin . iNaturalist. Retrieved from <https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/34937435>

11Photo by Jesse Rorabaugh. iNaturalist. Retrieved from <https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/11332613>