On March 23, 1937, the Kansas state legislature designated the cottonwood as the official state tree, mostly because of the role that the tree played in the pioneer days of the region. Settlers used to living on heavily forested land found it odd that there was such a lack of large trees on the Kansas prairie, and they often found solace when they encountered a cottonwood growing. The tree provided firewood, shade and often grew near a source of water. The cottonwood, also called a Carolina poplar, grows in many venues other than Kansas.
Eastern cottonwoods are among the tallest of the hardwoods in the East and can grow to heights around 100 feet. The trunks can have a large girth, with some over 4 or 5 feet in diameter possible. The canopy contains many spreading branches, and the leaves can be as long as 7 inches and as wide as 5 inches. Cottonwood leaves are triangular with several course serrations along their edges. The thick bark is silvery to whitish on immature trees but turns brown-grayish with fissures on older cottonwoods.
The eastern cottonwood is a tree that flourishes near streams and rivers in rich bottomland soil in a wide section of the United States. Eastern cottonwoods grow from the southern portions of Quebec in Canada southward to Southern states such as Georgia. The western boundary of the tree's range includes states such as Texas, Oklahoma, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas. The eastern cottonwood can grow at elevations up to 5,000 feet.
The cottonwood takes its name from its seeds, which develop only on the female trees. These seeds have a cottony texture to them, which helps with their dispersal. The tiny capsules they grow in finally split open from May through July in Southern climates and from June through the middle of July in the northern parts of the cottonwood's range. The wind scatters the seeds, which can number as many as 48 million for a single large specimen, according to the National Forest Service website. The seeds that wind up in streams and rivers typically will germinate on the banks of these waterways.
The fact that cottonwoods tolerate drought conditions exceptionally well makes them a low-maintenance ornamental choice. The tree requires plenty of room to expand though and a place that gets at least partial sun in which to grow. Cottonwoods are quick growing trees, with some able to grow 5 feet annually under the best of circumstances. Cottonwoods make excellent shade trees and the leaves, because of their shape and the stem's length, will flutter as the breeze hits them, adding the sound of rustling foliage to your surroundings.
The Great Plains Nature Center website states that cottonwoods have thick bark, a feature that allows the species to exist despite the threat of constant fires on the open prairies. In time, the wood on the larger cottonwoods becomes rotten and branches will break off. The hollows that result become homes for a number of creatures, such as squirrels, raccoons, opossums and birds.