Footsteps in the Forest

Eastern Cottonwood

(Populus deltoides)

Height: Quite large; occasionally approaching 200 feet (though most often, less than half this height)  

Evergreen/Deciduous: Deciduous  

Lifespan: Usually less than 100 years, but occasionally twice or thrice as long in ideal locations  

Fall Foliage: Attractive gold to yellow  

Range: A tree of the Great Plains, Mississippi and Ohio River valleys, and the southeastern United States, east of the Appalachian Mountains.  

Typical Habitat: Typically grows best in deep, fertile soil; requires significant moisture and sun exposure

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The Eastern Cottonwood: The Poplar of the East   

Poplars are an important and diverse group of species, but they’re much more diverse in the northern and western portions of North America than they are in the east (especially the southeast), where the eastern cottonwood is one of the only native representatives of the group.

The other poplars native to the southeastern United States include the bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata), which ranges south to parts of Virginia, and the downy poplar (Populus heterophylla), which is found in a few scattered pockets around the southeast.

Eastern Cottonwood Identification: Tips & Tricks

Eastern cottonwoods are generally easy to recognize in the eastern United States. Their triangular leaves are generally sufficient, but you can also look around for the cottony fibers attached to the tree’s seeds. Location also provides a good clue, as cottonwoods typically grow best in sunny, damp locations.  

The Eastern Cottonwood: Additional Information

Unfortunately, the eastern cottonwood rarely attracts the attention of some other hardwoods, but it’s a worthy species to research. Check out some of these resources to get started on your journey:

  • U.S. Forest Service: A comprehensive guide to the eastern cottonwood, including information ranging from growth habit to management considerations.
  • North Carolina State Extension: A general resource about the eastern cottonwood, including growing tips, cultivars, and planting requirements.  
  • The Morton Arboretum: Quick-and-straightforward information, along with numerous photographs.   

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