Plains Cottonwood tree

Majestic Plains Cottonwood Trees

The Plains Cottonwood tree is also referred to as an Eastern Cottonwood tree.  It is a large, dominant tree found along stream and river beds where it can get the regular moisture and periodic flooding that it needs.

The Plains Cottonwood is the largest broadleaf tree in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming!   This tree can reach a height of up to 100 feet with branches spreading out to 60 feet. 

The leaves are very distinctive by being triangle-shaped with serrations along the edge of the leaf.  The bark of the Plains Cottonwood is smooth and gray to yellow-green when the tree is young, becoming gray with thick ridges and deep furrows as it reaches maturity.

Scientific Name and Plant Family Information

The Scientific name is Populus deltoides, referring to the triangle-shaped leaves which are shaped like the Greek letter Delta.

It is in the plant family Salicaceae (Willow), which also has aspen trees and poplars along with willow shrubs and trees.  A couple of interesting things about this plant family are that the plants have male and female flowers on different plants (dioecious) and the bark has methyl salicylate, from which aspirin was originally derived.

Close-up of leaves and bark of Plains Cottonwood
Plains Cottonwood leaves and bark

Through the Seasons

In June, the female trees produce small tufts of fluffy white fibers like cotton which contain the seeds and are carried along in the wind. In the fall, the leaves turn a brilliant gold like its relative, the Aspen tree.  In the winter, these tall, straight trees can be recognized by their wide-spreading branches.

Cottonwood tree in winter
Plains Cottonwood tree in winter along Willow Creek – note the bird’s nest in the branches

Native or Non-Native?

The Plains Cottonwood tree is native to this area and grows along streams and in floodplains.  It can be found throughout much of Colorado at elevations from 3,500 to 7,500 feet.

The Plains Cottonwood tree even has an ecological community named after it – the cottonwood community. Its fast growth and large branches provide shade and shelter for other trees and shrubs to grow, and it provides food, shelter and a place to raise young for birds and other animals. 

Where to find in Willow Spring Open Space

Plains Cottonwood trees can be found along the bike path on the east side of the open space and along Willow Creek.

Did You Know?

The Plains Cottonwood relies on periodic flooding in order to survive!

References and Further Reading

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