As the weather gets warmer, cottonwood trees will let their characteristic seeds fly, filling the air with what look like tiny white clouds. The trees aren't actually related to cotton plants; they are a type of poplar tree. These trees grow very tall and have large leaves, although their most noticeable quality is their cotton-like seeds they display and shed during the summer. These often accumulate on the ground under the trees, and in places where there are large volumes of cottonwood trees, it can almost look like there's snow on the ground. It's certainly a strange thing to see, but luckily, the seeds have nothing to do with snow.
Cottonwoods are used in the lumber industry for hardwood, although for a hardwood tree, their wood is rather soft. They occur in different varieties all across the United States, and the cottonwood native to Illinois where I live is Populus deltoides, the eastern cottonwood. Their leaves, unlike the rest of the cottonwood species, are triangular rather than diamond-shaped. Cottonwoods are hardy trees, and they can handle both flooding and erosion. So if you live in an area prone to a great deal of rain, a cottonwood tree would probably thrive there.
Nature's art: The leaf of an eastern cottonwood with the feather of a northern flicker in New York Botanical Garden. (Photo: Kristine Paulus/Flickr)
The fluffy material surrounding the cottonwood seeds when they are released isn't just there to look pretty; it consists of seed hair fibers and helps the seed float through the air, giving it a wider range of distribution. Similar to true cotton, these fibers can be gathered and woven into fabric once they're properly prepared. They can also be used as stuffing. Other parts of the tree are useful as well. The wood is a favorite of artists who carve wooden sculptures, because it's soft enough to be whittled easily. However, it's not very good as a wood fuel, because it's a very wet wood and prone to rotting.
Cottonwoods are a beautiful and hardy tree, so when you see tiny balls of fluff floating through the air, look around you and find one of these lovely trees nearby.
A close-up view of the signature cottonwood fluff. (Photo: Rosser1954/Wikimedia Commons)
Eileen Campbell originally wrote this story for MNN State Reports.