In the autumn, when the daytime hours grow shorter, maples and cottonwoods begin to change color as chlorophyll is drawn out of the leaves in preparation for winter. Other trees also change color, but often aren’t as pronounced and beautiful.
Despite the fact that cottonwoods and maples are quite different trees, a lot of people don’t know the difference, not that it is all that important (except to other cottonwoods and maples). Here is a brief concourse about maples and cottonwoods.
There are many species of maples and the size of the leaves and the tree can vary considerably. However, maples have leaves that are deeply lobed to one degree or another. In the picture that is used here, the maple leaf is on the left. Notice the toothed leaf. Depending on the species of maple, the leaf can be more deeply toothed or less deeply toothed, but this is a trait of maples. Oaks also have lobed leaves, but they usually aren’t sharply toothed.
The leaves are the most distinguishing identifier of maples, though the tree also tends to be somewhat bushy, again, depending on the species. Maples also often have winged seeds.
Cottonwoods, of which Populus deltoides is a representative species, grows fairly straight and usually isn’t bushy. This tree is in the willow family and the cottonwood that is probably the most familiar to people in the US is named for the genus; Poplar. Poplars can be extremely tall, yet the branches grow close to the tree and don’t bush out. Because of how fast poplars grow and due to their straight-up growth, they are often planted along long driveways.
Cottonwood leaves are also terrific identifiers. In the picture, the leaf on the right is a cottonwood leaf. The margin of cottonwood leaves often has small teeth, though not always, however, they lack the deep lobed teeth of maple trees. Notice how the back margin of the poplar leaf in the picture is nearly straight, but tapers to a single point, without deep teeth.
The seeds of cottonwoods are borne in fluff that can drift for miles on the wind. It is from this that they get their common name; cottonwoods. The seeds are tiny and embedded in the fluff or ‘cotton’. This is common to all cottonwoods and poplars.
Cottonwoods are actually the largest hardwood tree found in the US and Canada. Many grow in excess of 150 feet in height. Maples can be large in diameter, but they don’t come anywhere near that height. It is rare for a maple tree to be taller than 30 feet.
There are some other differences between the two kinds of trees as well, but the leaves, shape, and size of the trees are the most obvious give-aways.
Just looking at the leaves, could you have figured out which was a maple and which was a cottonwood/poplar?