Nebraska State Tree
Eastern Cottonwood (common name)
Populus deltoides (scientific name)
One of the few trees to prosper on the Great Plains, eastern cottonwood was chosen as the state tree for Kansas in 1937 and for Nebraska in 1972. It has a wide natural range, growing in 43 states and the District of Columbia. Eastern cottonwood is also known as plains cottonwood, Rio Grande cottonwood, and plains poplar.
Eastern cottonwood is a stout, wide-branching, deciduous tree. In open areas, it typically has a large trunk that divides into branches near its base and ascends to form a wide, spreading crown. In closed groupings, it tends to have a tall, straight, and relatively branch-free trunk with a small rounded crown. Its large, wide, simple leaves are somewhat triangular in shape and often shiny, with veins that are sometimes pale to bright red. Its flowers occur in cylindrical clusters, followed in spring by tiny seeds with tufts of cottony hairs.
Height: 36-190 ft (11-58 m)
Diameter: 10.7 in-6 feet (27-183 cm) or more
Bark: young: smooth, gray to yellow-green
mature: gray with thick ridges and deep furrows
Seed: cottony seeds in split capsule
Leaves: veined, triangular, 3-6 in (8-15 cm) long
Eastern cottonwood is the fastest growing native tree in North America. It can mature in 10 to 12 years, but normally matures at about 35 years. Life expectancy is approximately 100 to 200 years. With good genetics and a good growing environment, eastern cottonwood can live up to 400 years.
The tree is characteristic of low-lying areas, especially near rivers, streams, swamps, and bottomlands. It is often a dominant component of floodplain and bottomland hardwood forests. It is a principal species in riverfront forests in the eastern United States. It can form pure stands or occur mixed with other species, particularly willows and sycamores.
IMPORTANCE TO LIVESTOCK AND WILDLIFE
Eastern cottonwood is a component of river forests and moist woodlands that provide critical habitat for many wildlife species, including deer, sharp-tailed grouse, and a wide variety of birds. Its importance is especially large in arid areas. Domestic livestock use these communities for shade, forage, and water in the summer, and for thermal cover in the winter. Field mice, rabbits, deer, and domestic livestock eat the bark and leaves of eastern cottonwood seedlings and saplings. Wild turkeys have been observed using eastern cottonwood for courtship, nesting, and rearing their young.
OTHER USES AND VALUES
The wood of eastern cottonwood is moderately lightweight, rather soft, and relatively weak in bending and compression. It is uniform in texture and usually straight grained. Primary wood products include lumber, veneer, plywood, excelsior, fiberboard, paper pulp, sawtimber, and pulpwood. Finished wood products include pallets, crates, furniture, and food containers.
Eastern cottonwood is relatively drought-resistant and has been used extensively in shelterbelt and windbreak plantings in the Great Plains region of the United States and Canada.
This tree is not ideal for most landscaping projects, as the wood is weak and the extensive root system may enter and clog water and sewer lines. Because the cottony seeds produced in spring will blow about in the wind, causing a snow-like drift, male clones, which have none of the objectionable "cotton" associated with seed, are preferred for home landscaping applications.
During severe winters, Native Americans and early settlers used saplings as horse and cattle feed. Native Americans used the roots to start fires and used smaller trees for lodge poles and traditional vehicles called travois. The teepee pattern is supposedly patterned after the deltoid leaf shape of eastern cottonwood. The Teton Dakota ate the inner bark and the Omaha used it to make the Sacred Pole. Nebraska tribe children made toys with the leaves and made gum and play jewelry from the fruits.
There is no seed dormancy in eastern cottonwood; germination occurs as soon as seeds arrive on a seedbed that is moist, free of vegetation, and in full sunlight. Seeds are highly viable at dispersal, but viability decreases rapidly in the absence of a suitable environment.
Cottonwood species (Populus spp.) reproduce vegetatively by sprouting from stumps and root crowns, and by the formation of suckers (adventitious shoots on roots). There is asexual reproduction from broken limbs and crown breakage. The ability of cottonwoods to sprout declines with age.
This poplar primarily grows on the moist soil of floodplains and bottomlands. It is also found in ravines, along disturbed streams, and in low spots of sandy uplands with a high water table. The tree tolerates a wide range of soils from coarse sands to clays, but grows best on moist, well-drained, fine sandy loams or silt.
Eastern cottonwood's range extends from the East Coast westward to the Rocky Mountain states. It is found from the Gulf of Mexico north to Maine and Quebec. Eastern cottonwood is a colonizing species that will invade old fields and upland sites in the southern part of its natural range and unburned prairies in Kansas.
Across its range, eastern cottonwood is found from 255 to 6,500 feet (78-1,980 m), usually 15 to 40 feet (5-12 m) above stream level.
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U.S. Forest Service
U.S. National Arboretum
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Author: World Trade Press