Eastern Cottonwood: A Top 100 Common Tree in North America

Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides), one of the largest eastern hardwoods, is short-lived but the fastest-growing commercial forest species in North America. It grows best on moist well-drained sands or silts near streams, often in pure stands. The lightweight, rather soft wood is used primarily for core stock in manufacturing furniture and for pulpwood. Eastern cottonwood is one of the few hardwood species that is planted and grown specifically for these purposes.

The Silviculture of Eastern Cottonwood

man admiring large cottonwood log
(Wikimedia Commons)

Eastern cottonwood is frequently planted to give quick shade near homes. Male clones, which have none of the objectionable "cotton" associated with seed, are preferred. Cottonwood has been used for windbreaks and soil stabilization. Deep planting permits reforesting of nonproductive fields with sandy soils having available moisture beneath a dry surface layer.

There has been considerable interest in cottonwood for energy biomass, because of its high yield potential and coppicing ability. There has also been interest in growing it for inclusion in cattle feed, since it is a good source of cellulose relatively free of undesirable components, such as tannins. The new growth is high in protein and minerals.

The Images of Eastern Cottonwood

eastern cottonwood trees
(Dave Powell/USDA Forest Service/CC BY 3.0 us)

Forestryimages.org provides several images of parts of Eastern cottonwood. The tree is a hardwood and the lineal taxonomy is Magnoliopsida > Salicales > Salicaceae > Populus deltoides deltoides Bartr. ex Marsh. Eastern cottonwood is also sometimes called southern cottonwood, Carolina poplar, eastern poplar, necklace poplar, and álamo.

The Range of Eastern Cottonwood

distribution map of eastern cottonwood tree
(U.S. Geological Survey/Wikimedia Commons)

Eastern cottonwood grows along streams and on bottomlands from southern Quebec westward into North Dakota and southwestern Manitoba, south to central Texas, and east to northwestern Florida and Georgia. The north-south distribution extends from latitude 28 N. to 46 N. It is absent from the higher Appalachian areas and from much of Florida and the Gulf Coast except along rivers. The western boundary is not well defined because eastern cottonwood intergrades with var. occidentalis, plains cottonwood, where the ranges overlap. Altitude is a primary determiner of the western boundary.

Eastern Cottonwood at Virginia Tech

eastern cottonwood seeds
(EnLorax/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0)

Leaf: Alternate, simple, pinnately veined, 3 to 6 inches long, triangular (deltoid) in shape with a crenate/serrate margin. The petiole is flattened and glands are present at the top of the petiole.

Twig: Stout, somewhat angled and yellowish; buds are 3/4 inch long, covered with several brown, resinous scales. Has a bitter aspirin taste.

Fire Effects on Eastern Cottonwood

firefighter and forest fire
(Bureau of Land Management/Wikimedia Commons)

Fire generally kills eastern cottonwood. Mature trees with thick bark may be only scarred or top-killed. Fire scars may facilitate the onset of heartwood decay.