They often tower over all other trees in their vicinity. While they grow quickly, and reach imposing heights they are short lived at around 75 to 100 years. They are classified as a hardwood because of the way they propagate. They are in fact very soft and readily shed limbs and twigs in windstorms. These trees are still a favorite among many individuals because of their rapid growth and quick shade they can provide. However check the ordinances in your area as many cities have outlawed planting them. This is because of their tendency to break during storm events and the copious amounts of fluffy seeds they disperse. This fluff can clog air conditions, vents, and create allergy issues for many people.
While Eastern cottonwood is the most recognized common name, they are also referred to as the Cottonwood poplar and the necklace poplar. This is in reference to the long seed capsules that resemble a strand of pearls. Other trees in the Populus genus are the poplars and the aspens.
The deeply triangular shaped leaves resemble a heart and have flattened stems which allow them to quake and tremble in the slightest breeze. This quaking sounded like falling water or a waterfall to travelers who would follow the sound and would find the cottonwood tree growing along a much needed water source. You can imagine early settlers traveling by wagon train long distances over harsh landscapes in primitive conditions, often low on water, the sight of the cottonwood standing tall in the distance would be a welcome sight indeed. They could fill containers to continue their journey not knowing when the next water source would appear. Livestock got a much needed drink and everyone could bath and wash the trail stench off. Having found a reliable water source many settlers would decide to set up homestead and not continue the arduous journey. Traveling during the winter carried with it another set of challenges and food was often scarce, especially for livestock. The bark of the tree could be fed as fodder to cows and horses if needed. In fact Colonial Custard in the winter of 1868-69 reported during a particularly harsh winter south of Arkansas feeding his horse the bark of this tree during a campaign against the native tribes of the area.
We can see how the Peoples Tree has played an important part in the history of the United States. It provided shade, medicine, food for livestock when needed, canoes for water travel and trading at the forts. It was a homing beacon to water for thirsty settlers and travelers. It is a host for many beautiful butterflies that brighten up the landscape. It was and still is considered sacred to many Native Tribes, including the Lakota Sioux that use it as part of their ritual Sundance. The cottonwood may argumentatively be the most historically important tree on our landscape.