Description & Overview

Eastern Cottonwood, Populus deltoids, is a large, fast-growing deciduous tree native to the central, southwestern, and eastern United States and portions of Canada and Mexico. Eastern Cottonwood has an upright form with a large spreading canopy, often rounded or pyramidal. Because of their flattened petioles, their large “D”-shaped foliage appears to wave at you in the wind.

Core Characteristics

Category: Tree

Wisconsin Native: Yes

USDA Hardiness Zone: to zone 2

Mature Height: 70-90 feet

Mature Spread: 70-90 feet

Growth Rate: Fast

Growth Form: Upright. Develops an open, broad, rounded canopy.

Light Requirements: Full Sun

Site Requirements: Moist, well-draining. Adaptable to different soil types and textures.

Flower: Dioecious. Separate male and female catkins. 2-4" in length, reddish to yellow in color.

Bloom Period: Early spring

Foliage: Dark green. Capital "D" shaped.

Fall Color: Bright yellow.

Urban Approved: No

Fruit Notes: Female catkins grow into 4-6" long egg-shaped capsules. Capsules split open early-mid-summer releasing many light, cottony seeds.

Suggested Uses

Eastern Cottonwood has an impressive mature stature and grows quickly. Its smooth greenish-gray bark ages into an appealing ashy-gray with easily recognizable long, deep longitudinal fissures and furrows. Eastern Cottonwood has a lovely display of brilliant yellow come fall.

This tree would make an excellent choice for parks and natural areas, as well as a shade or specimen tree on larger properties. It is generally not recommended to use Eastern Cottonwood in smaller lots or as an ornamental due to its weak wood, suckering habit, and messy seedpods.

This species is dioecious-meaning individual trees will have all male or all female parts. It’s the females who produce fruit pods containing an abundant amount of seeds.

Eastern Cottonwood, Populus deltoids, is a large, fast-growing deciduous tree native to the central, southwestern, and eastern United States and porti…
Eastern Cottonwood, Populus deltoids, is a large, fast-growing deciduous tree native to the central, southwestern, and eastern United States and porti…

Wildlife Value

Eastern Cottonwood is an important food source for numerous insect species. The foliage is consumed by butterflies and moths, including Viceroy, Tiger Swallowtail, and Night-wandering Dagger. Long-horned beetles, aphids, leafhoppers, and the larvae of the poplar borer have also been known to feast on the foliage. These foliage feeders attract insectivorous birds, including pileated woodpeckers, Northern parula, yellow warblers, and Baltimore oriole. In times when other sources of food are scarce, the catkins and buds are consumed by avian visitors, such as the ruffed grouse, prairie chicken, and purple finch.

Birds and insects aren’t the only ones who benefit from Eastern Cottonwood; mammalian foragers do, too, including white-tailed deer, rabbits, squirrels, and beavers.

Maintenance Tips

Populus deltoides should be planted in full sun and would appreciate moderate moisture. This tree tolerates wet soils and can withstand seasonal flooding. It isn’t picky about soil type, texture, or pH, which makes finding a suitable planting location easier. Eastern Cottonwood grows large, but the branches are relatively soft and brittle, which are vulnerable to storm and ice damage-this should be kept in mind when selecting a planting location. The root system will actively wander searching for water; individuals should not be planted near sewers or water pipes. For female individuals, the cottony hairs are released in such abundance that they can clog gutters and the filters of air conditioners. Each fruit pod may release 30-50 seeds with cottony hairs-they are distributed by the wind and can travel several hundred feet. Seeds will also float on water and will travel downstream. Eastern Cottonwood is known to be short-lived. Perhaps this tree’s strategy is to live fast, die young and make as many babies as possible.

This tree would do better when planted in low spots or along streams where other trees may not flourish.

Eastern Cottonwood, Populus deltoids, is a large, fast-growing deciduous tree native to the central, southwestern, and eastern United States and porti…
Eastern Cottonwood, Populus deltoids, is a large, fast-growing deciduous tree native to the central, southwestern, and eastern United States and porti…

Pests/Problems

No major insect or disease put Eastern Cottonwood’s mortality in jeopardy. However, although these are minor concerns, you may encounter common ornamental diseases such as canker, leaf spot, and powdery mildew.

Leaf Lore

The genus, Populus, is part of the Willow (Salicaceae) family. The specific epithet deltoides means “triangular,” resembling the Greek letter delta, in reference to the triangular or deltoid shape of the leaf. The common name Cottonwood comes from the cottony appearance of its seeds.

The U.S. national champion is located in Ravalli County, Montana, and is a whopping 112 feet tall with a crown spread of 94 feet! Eastern Cottonwood is the state tree of Nebraska, home to the second-place holder of the U.S. national champion in Beatrice. It measures 88 feet tall and 108 feet wide.

Companion Plants

Pair Eastern Cottonwood with other riparian loving plants such as Willow, Speckled Alder, Silver Maple, Smooth Sumac, Red Milkweed, Spotted Joe-Pye Weed, and Cardinal Flower.

miles minter avatar

Written by Miles Minter