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BOTANICAL NAMEPopulus deltoides var. deltoides  (POP-you-lus del-TOID-ess)

FAMILY: Salicaceae (Willow Family)

TYPE: Deciduous tree

HEIGHT: 80 to 100 feet

SPREAD: 40 to 50 feet

FINAL SPACING: Do not plant

NATURAL HABITAT AND PREFERRED SITE: Eastern half of Texas and a wide variety of soils especially lowlands. Cottonwood has been considered almost an aquatic plant because it likes moist soil so much but can adapt to fairly dry situations. Cottonwood is considered a pioneer species that quickly invades other areas, especially disturbed soil and new sand bars.

IDENTIFICATION INFORMATION: Cottonwood is a very fast growing, upright messy tree. It sends out cotton all over the place in the spring, has brittle wood and it has large limbs. Its root system is extremely shallow, ravenous and destructive. It normally will have quite a bit of dead wood in the tree.

FLOWERS AND FRUIT: Flowers are born separately on male and female trees February through May. Male flowers are about 2 inches long. Female flowers up to 4 inches long. Fruit ripens May to June in drooping racemes with many seed in each pod. Each seed has a tuft of cottony hairs which enables it to drift in the wind and become a maintenance problem, especially around air conditioners.

BARK: Bark is thin and smooth on young stems but develops into gray to almost black and heavily fissured mature trunks. Some mature bark is still very light and ashy gray color.

FOLIAGE: Leaves are simple, alternate, and deciduous with so-so yellow fall color. The leaves are on 2 to 3 inch long petioles. Triangular leaves can range from 3 to 6 inches long and equally wide. They are shiny green on top, lighter green below.

CULTURE: Cottonwood is easy to grow in almost any soil.

PROBLEMS: Cottonwood is short lived, has a destructive root system and the cottony seed from the female plant is a nuisance and damaging to electrical appliances. Stressed trees are commonly attacked by borers. The root system is susceptible to cotton root rot and other root diseases. This is a dangerous tree because large limbs or the entire tree can fall on cars, structures and even people. This is one tree that should be removed from most residential property.

PROPAGATION: Cottonwood trees can be grown from seed easily and can be transplanted from seedlings with almost no loss. In fact, rather large tree, up to 3 and 4 inches in caliper can be ripped out of the ground and transplanted bare root with almost 100% success.

LIFE SPAN: Expect deterioration to begin over age 60, although they may live twice as long.

INSIGHT: Silver poplar, Populus alba, is a pretty tree but sprouts up everywhere and becomes a huge pest by spreading from the parent tree’s root system. The leaves are green on top and very light to silvery on the bottom. Populus nigra is the lombardy poplar, which is the narrow, upright poplar that is short lived, problematic and considered another junk tree. Neither of these should be planted in Texas.

Although I strongly advise not using cottonwood on residential property, cottonwood trees are beautiful in settings on ranches and larger properties in lowlands around creeks when they are not close to structures. The look, the sound of the leaves in the wind and the size of these trees can be quite spectacular if they are allowed to grow in the proper place.

Cottonwood pulp is used for book and magazine paper, pallet lumber and food containers. Bark, seed, and leaves are eaten by wildlife. The famous San Antonio Mission Alamo is named for this tree.


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