Cottonwoods, tall and stately pioneer invaders of the prairies–though few and far between when European Americans first came to the Great Plains–served as prominent landmarks and shady respites for those who traversed the region. They often marked a source of water and provided fuel for campsites. The cottonwood population increased dramatically with the coming of the plow and the demise of prairie wildfires. The seedlings that sprouted on sandbars were collected by early settlers and planted at their homesites for shade and wind shelter.
Today, cottonwoods continue to be an important part of farmstead windbreaks and field shelterbelts. Natural cottonwood stands are one of the main sources of sawtimber harvested in the Great Plains. The lumber, though lightweight and soft, is used for pallets and light construction. These fast growing, easily propagated trees are also used to provide fiber for high-quality paper.
Cottonwoods–members of the genus Populus in the willow family (Salicaceae)–are most at home along flowing streams and level, subirrigated uplands where soil moisture is plentiful. They bear wind-pollinated flowers. After pollination capsules release large numbers of tiny, cottony, winged seeds in early summer that must germinate and take root in a matter of hours or perish because they do not contain their own built-in food supply. Most species of Populus will also reproduce readily by stump and root sprouts. They can be propagated by hardwood cuttings as well.
Eastern cottonwood (P. deltoides) and its western variety plains cottonwood (var. occidentalis) grow throughout the Great Plains from the Rio Grande to the Prairie Provinces of Canada. The national cochampion eastern cottonwood stood ninety-six feet tall near Arapahoe, Nebraska, until it was severely damaged by wind. The national champion plains cottonwood stands 105 feet tall near Hygiene, Colorado.
Other cottonwood species native to the Great Plains are the narrowleaf cottonwood (P. anqustifolia) and the lanceleaf cottonwood (p. xacuminata), which is believed to be a natural cross between the eastern and narrowleaf cottonwoods. Closely related family members –balsam poplar (P. balsamifera) and quaking aspen (P. tremuloides)–are natives of northern portions of the Great Plains.
Walter T. Bagley University of Nebraska-Lincoln
American Forestry Association. National Register of Big Trees. Washington DC, 1996.