How to Grow and Care for the Eastern Cottonwood

A lone Eastern Cottonwood in on the midwestern prairie

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Eastern Cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) are large deciduous trees distributed densely throughout North America, from east of the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic ocean. While it favors moist areas like stream beds and lakefronts, it is pretty adaptable and will do well just about anywhere. It is almost guaranteed that you've crossed paths with this wide-reaching tree if you live in or have visited its native habitat. The cottonwood's ability to spread far and wide has led the tree to become fabled and, by some, looked at with disdain.

The cottonwood is polarizing; people either love it or hate it. The divide is as big as the tree itself. You will have to make an equally big decision: is it the right tree for you and your landscape?

Common Name  Eastern Cottonwood
Botanical Name  Populus deltoides
Family Name Salicaceae
Plant Type  Deciduous tree
Mature Size  50 to 80 ft. tall, 50 to 80 ft. wide
Sun Exposure  Full sun
Soil Type  Average, Medium to Wet, Well-drained
Soil pH  Adaptable
Bloom Time  March to April
Flower Color  Green (Female), Red (Male)
Hardiness Zones  USDA zones 2-9
Native Area  Eastern and central North America

Cottonwood Care

Cottonwoods have beautiful triangular leaves that rustle in the wind to create a soothing sound in the breeze, then turning a beautiful bright yellow in the fall. The tree itself is not difficult to care for. Still, it is somewhat labor-intensive considering the need to clean up the seed material, pruning to prevent the possibility of limbs breaking and watering in dry conditions. This guide should help inform you on all the conditions you need to consider to keep your tree as healthy and to give it and you as little stress as possible.

Light

Your cottonwood will fare best if you place the tree in a location that gets full sun throughout the day. One of the most appealing features of the species is its beautiful fall color, and good light will ensure you get that brilliant gold in the autumn you are hoping for.

Soil

While your cottonwood prefers moist soil that drains well, it is great at adapting to the location it finds itself in once it has been established. If you can choose a location that isn't usually soaked but has consistent moisture, the tree will be delighted, and so will you since you won't have to worry about watering it as much.

Water

A Cottonwoods tree enjoys a good amount of water, especially while it is establishing itself. During the first few seasons, you will need to water your tree weekly, 10 gallons of water for each inch of the tree's diameter, increase to 15 if it is in a dry location or a period of time experiencing little precipitation. After the first year or two, you can ween the tree from watering.

Temperature and Humidity

While the tree can deal with a range of temperatures in its native USDA Hardiness Zones of 2-9, it is crucial to know that weather can affect the weak limbs of the tree through ice and wind damage, so good pruning is essential.

Fertilizer

When you plant your cottonwood, you may want to add a couple of shovels fulls of good organic compost into its hole to give it a boost to help kickstart root growth. After the initial boost from the compost, you should not need to add any supplemental fertilizer to your tree.

Pruning

Pruning your tree is the most important task you will perform. You will begin early in its life and continue till it grows until you need to use a ladder, at which time you should call in a certified arborist.

The two main tasks you attempt to do with your cottonwood are first to establish a single leader. One main trunk will be stronger than many offshoots, and two cut away any obviously weak, damaged, inward-pointing, or deeply crotched branches. Doing these tasks will help ensure that your cottonwood will keep strong branches and possibly keep you from costly damages after storms.

Pros and Cons of an Eastern Cottonwood Tree

Cottonwood trees are also one of the most valuable trees in the country for wildlife, providing food and shelter for countless species. Cottonwood grows eight feet per year in the right conditions. This rapid growth and its wide spread allow it to create amazing shade and tremendously efficient windbreaks, which can result in lower energy usage for nearby structures.

This fast-growing tendency also kicks off the cons list for reasons to avoid this tree. Because the cottonwood grows so fast, the wood tends to be weak and brittle. This is bad news for places that get a lot of wind, ice, snow, and rain. Putting it in an area with property, people, or valuables and can create a hazard.

The cottonwood's fondness for moisture and its shallow roots makes its roots seek out water pipes, sewer pipes, and septic systems. Planting it close to your home or any sidewalks could result in major repairs later.

Finally, they are known to cause a mess. Cottonwood trees are dioecious, which means springtime flowers are produced separately on females and males. Because of this trait, some towns have ordinances prohibiting the planting of cottonwoods, or specifically female cottonwood trees, which create fluffy white seed material (from which it gets its name) that covers the area, clogging window screens, air conditioners, creating poor air quality and coating swimming pools. The onslaught of the seeds also leads to profuse sprouting of unwanted cottonwoods in the area. Before planting one, check your local ordinances to see if the tree is even allowed.

When you weigh all the positives and negatives, if you still decide you want to include a cottonwood tree in your landscape design, you may want to search for a cultivar that doesn't seed, like Populus deltoides 'Siouxland'. These are not readily available at big box stores or even your friendly local nurseries, but you should be able to special order them or buy them online.