While Kansas had fewer, smaller trees than the wooded eastern United States, settlers to the new state found many trees. A number of native trees were found in all parts of Kansas, yet it was the cottonwood (Populus deltoides) that was chosen as the state tree of Kansas. The explanation that the Kansas Legislature selected the tree in 1937 was: "Whereas, if the full truth were known, it might honestly be said that the successful growth of the cottonwood grove on the homestead was often the determining factor in the decision of the homesteader to 'stick it out until he could prove up on his claim'; and Whereas, The cottonwood tree can rightfully be called 'the pioneer tree of Kansas.'"
The cottonwood play a role in the early pioneer's life. Where stands of cottonwoods existed, they were used as building materials for early cabins. The wood of the cottonwood was not necessarily the preferred building material. Although easy to work, it was soft, weak, and porous. It had a high water content that warped once dried. The trunk did not grow straight, and it was only chosen for building material when other sturdier varieties were unavailable.
Cottonwoods grow rapidly; in ideal conditions they can grow nearly 100 feet in height in 15 years. More trees reach full growth in 40 years. They can continue to live for 100 years or more after their initial growth spurt. They can reproduce through the fluffy fibers, called cotton, that Kansas winds transport to new locations. They can also grow from old stumps, root sprouts, and cuttings from old trees. Mature bark can resist heat from prairie fires that spread across the grasslands.
In early summer female cottonwood trees release "cotton" into the air, giving an appearance of snow. Newer varieties have been developed that are "cottonless."
The leaf of the cottonwood is bright green and has a broad triangular shape. the base of the leaf is relatively straight. Its edges are jagged and the tip of the leaf forms a sharp point. Breezes make the leaves twist and turn. The leaves create a glimmering effect even on a fairly still day, and a unique soft rustling sound.
Entry: Cottonwood Tree
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: January 2013
Date Modified: June 2013
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.