Populus deltoides (aka Eastern cottonwood, Eastern poplar)
Several characteristics of the mature Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) make it easy to identify, even at a distance.
- Height -- The Eastern cottonwood is typically very tall, up to 100 feet in height in favorable conditions. The crown can be as wide as the tree's height, if it is not crowded by other trees.
- High crown -- The lowest branches may not be within reach; rather, they may be high overhead. Cottonwoods aren't trees that invite climbing.
- Massive branches -- The limbs usually head off from the trunk in a somewhat upright direction, and they are large and long. If the limbs appear delicate in comparison to the trunk, it's probably not a cottonwood. As the branches grow longer, they tend to arch a little, giving the tree a vase-like shape.
- Rugged and often ragged shape -- The tree has weak wood, and its branches often break in heavy storms. Dead wood is a light gray or nearly white, after the bark falls off.
- Moist location -- The Eastern cottonwood loves any site with damp ground. This includes stream and pond banks, road ditches, moist ravines, floodplains, swamp edges, and any other area with plenty of moisture. It even tolerates standing in water for short periods of time. (Cottonwood also tolerates dryer sites, but often it was introduced to such places, rather than growing there naturally.)
- The rough bark of the trunk and large branches has deep vertical furrows, and its color is ash gray. In contrast, the bark of the twigs is light tan or yellowish brown -- though the twigs may be too high in the air to see them clearly!
I am rather fond of cottonwood trees because so many grew on the grounds of the one-room country school I attended in northern Nebraska. I believe they were Eastern cottonwoods rather than the closely-related plains cottonwood.
Our schoolhouse sat on a low meadow. Water often stood on one end of the playground in winter (we ice-skated at recess), and in spring when the snow and ice melted, the road ditches became little streams. It was a perfect place for cottonwoods.
The cottonwoods grew on three of the four sides of the school grounds. They were great for hide-and-seek. A few of the trunks were so large that several children could hide behind them -- what fun!
My schoolmates and I were upset when our fathers got together one day and cut down one of our favorite trees for hiding. It was old, and they were afraid it was going to drop limbs on the schoolhouse.
I took three of the photographs in this post in Christian County, KY. The little clump of cottonwoods in the top photo grows in a low spot near the Hopkinsville High School. Water collects there whenever there's a heavy rain. I took the two creek-bank photos in eastern Christian County. The stream is the South Fork of Little River, near its origin.
Credit for the great photo looking straight up the cottonwood trunk: USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Herman, D.E., et al. 1996. North Dakota tree handbook. USDA NRCS ND State Soil Conservation Committee; NDSU Extension and Western Area Power Administration, Bismarck.