Populus deltoides (Plains Cottonwood)

Plant Info
Also known as: Eastern Cottonwood
Family:Salicaceae (Willow)
Life cycle:perennial woody
Habitat:part shade, sun; most woods, floodplains, lowland forest along lakes and streams
Bloom season:April - May
Plant height:80 to 120 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FAC MW: FAC NCNE: FAC
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: indistinct Cluster type: raceme Cluster type: spike

[photo of male flowers] Male and female flowers are on separate trees (dioecious) in hanging clusters (catkins) from the leaf axils of 1 year old branches. Male catkins are 2 to 4½ inches long with tiers of red stamens. Female catkins are 2½ to 4¼ inches long with yellowish stigmas on top of a naked, round green ovary. 

Leaves and bark: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves] Leaves are alternate and simple with a mostly flat leaf stalk, blade is broadly triangular (deltoid), 2 to 4 inches long and up to 4¼ inches wide, the base mostly flat across, the corner angles rounded with coarse, rounded teeth, and tapered to an abrupt pointed tip. Both leaf surfaces are smooth, the upper bright green, the lower only slightly less so. Usually at the base of the leaf near the stalk are 2 small glands.

[photo of trunk] Twigs are greenish and smooth  turning a creamy yellow brown the second year. Buds are large, round and conical with a sharp point, the terminal bud up to ¾ inch, reddish or yellowish brown and shiny from a sticky, non-aromatic resinous coating. Bark is smooth and thin, creamy or greenish gray on younger branches becoming brownish to dark gray, thick and deeply ridged and furrowed on the trunk. Minnesota's champion tree cottonwood measures a whopping 10-ft diameter at breast height. Other massive 5 to 6-ft driver bottom specimens are not uncommon.

Fruit: Fruit type: capsule/pod

[photo of developing fruit] Fruits is a green, egg-shaped capsule on the long pendulous catkins, splitting into three or four parts when mature releasing copious amounts of cottony seeds to the winds.


A massive tree of floodplains, stream valleys and lakeshores, it can also establish on drier upland soils where there is adequate subsurface moisture to see it through droughts. In urban plantings it is a fast growing species that can quickly dwarf the landscape though its weak, brittle wood predisposes it to wind breakage and the copious amounts of cottony wind dispersed seeds can quickly clog up window screens, air conditioner coils and lawnmower filters. Male hybrid selections such as Siouxland, as well as others, avoid the seeds and are frequently planted as field windbreaks and farm shelterbelts. Unlike most other poplar species, Cottonwood does not reproduce by root suckers and does not occur naturally in dense, pure clonal colonies. Attempts to utilize these hybrids in intensive biomass plantations, both here a abroad, have been hindered with issues like Cottonwood leaf beetle outbreaks and bacterial canker diseases. There are 3 recognized subspecies in North America: subsp. wislizeni limited to the southwestern US; subsp. deltoides (commonly called Eastern Cottonwood) in southern and eastern North America which has leaves with a short taper to the tip, 3 to 6 glands on the leaf, and usually hairless winter buds; subsp. monifilera in the central US and Canada which is found in Minnesota and has leaves with a longer taper to the tip, usually 2 glands on a leaf, and usually hairy winter buds.

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken in Ramsey County. Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Anoka and Ramsey counties, and in North Dakota.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: John D S - Newfolden in Marshall County
on: 2017-07-20 22:36:24

Large beautiful plains cottonwood trees in park immediately to east of grain elevator on highway 28.

Posted by: David - Winthrop, MN
on: 2021-05-01 21:42:44

I think I may have a potential record breaking tree with more than 10 foot diameter tunk on my property outside of Winthrop, MN. It's bigger around than the one in the picture for sure. How do I get it recored? Who do I talk to to record the record if it's worth recording?

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2021-05-02 09:43:05

David, I believe the DNR keeps those records, but I don't know specifically who to speak to or which department maintains them.

Posted by: Vesta Lindboe - Brooklyn Park
on: 2021-05-20 13:18:22

Is the cotton blowing season over for this year?

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2021-05-20 14:26:17

Vesta, I believe it is still snowing cotton in parts of the state.

Posted by: Sherry Lynn Phillips - Castle Danger MN just south of Gooseberry State Park
on: 2023-09-29 16:20:01

At Grand Superior Lodge, there are large cottonwoods lining the shore in front of the log homes. We were surprised to find them and so big! Nothing else fit the leaves, stems, bark or form. I wondered if anyone has a record of these trees here.

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