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The Trees of Autumn; Maples and Cottonwoods

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.

Maples

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

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?

    • Yes
    • No

What do you think?

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Written by Rex Trulove

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16 Comments

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  1. I’m fairly familiar with maple trees since we had a couple of them growing in our yard when I was a kid. I would have known that the cottonwood wasn’t a maple but I would not have been able to tell you what it was without checking my trees field guide.

    • Our neighbor has two red maples and a half-dozen cottonwoods. He had more cottonwoods but cut several of them down. Each year, when the leaves fall, our yard is totally covered with cottonwood leaves. I don’t mind. I just put them in the garden to act as mulch and by spring, they’ve composted well enough that I can dig them into the soil.

        • I usually do rake them, for a couple of reasons. The size of cottonwood leaves means that they form an effective mat on the lawn, choking out everything below it. If I rake them up, I can then run the mower over them to chunk them into smaller pieces that break down more easily without being prone to matting. My mower doesn’t have a bag attachment. So I often rake the leaves, run over them with the mower, and put the result on the garden or use it as mulch in the flowerbeds. If I keep them damp until nature decides to do that for me with rain or snow, the leaf mulch isn’t going anywhere.

          Our neighbor, though, the one with all the cottonwoods, uses his riding mower to collect all the leaves, then he bags them and takes them to the dump. To me, that is a waste, for the reason you cited.

  2. It is always interesting in the autumn to note the different leaves. I love my giant oak tree in my garden back in Latvia it shed so many leaves and also acorns. The majority of threes in Latvia were oaks, then chestnuts, and birches.

    • One place we lived in when we were in Oregon had oak trees. Along one fence, there were also poison sumac bushes. I never tried to remove them, despite the fact that they can cause a person to break out in a rash. I left them there because, in the fall, they would turn a deep crimson color that was totally gorgeous.

    • I suspect that it isn’t a true poplar. Of course, that wouldn’t stop a gardening center from calling a tree a poplar, even if it wasn’t. That sort of thing has to do with marketing and it is the reason that garden places sometimes sell ‘huckleberry bushes’ even though they aren’t huckleberries. All the bushes sold in the US that are called huckleberries are actually blueberries. Huckleberries grow wild and it is extremely difficult to grow one domestically.

      Poplars are grown by many people as a decorative tree or border, which makes them a fairly high-demand tree. Nurseries are apt to cash in on that by selling trees that aren’t poplars as poplars, usually with an additional descriptive name, especially if the other name is also an in-demand plant, like “rose poplar”, “tulip poplar”, or what have you. That doesn’t make the tree a rose, tulip, or poplar and the scientific name would probably bear that out.

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