Sunday, May 02, 2010

American Hardwoods: Cottonwood

How the Cottonwood got it's name: the fluffy, white seeds that form in spring allow the tiny seed to be carried by the wind over great distances! Cottonwoods can be either male or female. The seeds are very small, 1mm wide by 4 mm long, which is quite remarkable considering that they can become one of the largest trees in North America, up to 100 ft. high with massive trunks over 5 ft. in diameter.

By growing along rivers and streams, Cottonwoods are able to survive forest fires and thrive with wet roots. A very thick, cork-like bark affords this tree further protection from the elements.

Cottonwoods can live to be over 100 years old, establishing itself as Champion of Hardwoods. Like their relative, the Aspen they share the same shaking, shimmering leaves.

When the heartwood rots in the larger limbs and trunk of a Cottonwood a windstorm can break one of the hollow branches off, providing access to the interior. They are favored amoung squirrels, raccoons, opossums and honeybees as a ready-made home.

If you are lucky enough to break a Cottonwood twig just right, you might find a tiny star inside. Native American tribes believed it to be where the stars in the sky come from. According to legend, the wind sent them to the sky from the trees.

The bark of the Cottonwood can be an ideal medium for artisans. The soft bark is easy to carve, and can be harvested in the fall after a tree's death.


Cottonwood is one of the worst woods to use as wood fuel. It does not dry well, and rots quickly. It splits poorly, because it is very fibrous. If you ever managed to light it, you'd find that it produces a low level of BTUs.

Join us next week as we take a good look at Cypress in the Edge of the Wildwood series on American Hardwoods.

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