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How Long Do Cottonwood Trees Live?

The eastern cottonwood tree (populus deltoides) typically lives 70-100 years. However, in ideal conditions, its life expectancy can reach anywhere from 200-400 years. The Balmville Tree, for instance, was the oldest living cottonwood in the United States at 315 years old when it was felled in 2015. These long-lived trees are quite common throughout North America. Cottonwoods can come in many varieties including the eastern cottonwood, plains cottonwood, black cottonwood, western cottonwood, lanceleaf cottonwood, and Fremont cottonwood.

How long do cottonwood trees live?

How Long Does it Take a Cottonwood to Mature?

Cottonwoods typically take decades to reach maturity. Plains cottonwood trees, for instance, don’t reach maturity until they are nearly 50. Despite the slow maturation, they are incredibly fast-growing trees, sometimes growing up to 6 feet in height each year. This rapid growth can make for a massive tree in a short time. 

  • Cottonwoods take many decades to mature.
  • A cottonwood tree will experience rapid growth in their first 2–3 decades before slowing down as it reaches maturity.

Mature cottonwood trees tend to be around 90 feet tall (27 meters) at their shortest. The most intense growth rate occurs during the first 25–30 years before slowing down. Unfortunately, this quick growth can lead to weak wood which lowers plant hardiness. The soft wood of a plains cottonwood will be especially susceptible to damage during this growth period.

What is the Oldest Cottonwood Tree?

Cottonwood groves in British Columbia, Canada were found to have multiple trees around 400 years old. To date, this is the longest known lifespan for this deciduous tree in natural conditions. 

  • Cottonwood trees have a maximum lifespan of 400 years.
  • The oldest cottonwoods are found in British Columbia.
  • Old cottonwoods can be a property hazard due to their weak wood.

Old cottonwoods can be dangerous trees. Cottonwoods are already not very resilient and they continue to weaken as they age. Their incredible height means that as they weaken, they can fall and bring down other trees around them. They can also cause massive property damage when they fall. Cottonwoods have shallow roots so it’s very easy for them to come down under light stress.

How Do You Know if a Cottonwood Tree is Dying?

Cottonwoods are prone to numerous health issues. You should regularly check the cottonwood leaf canopy for signs of disease. The biggest threat to cottonwood trees is fungal infections which can sometimes be found at the base of the tree. Here are the main warning signs to look out for when evaluating the health of your cottonwood:

  • When you scrape underneath bark or twigs, there is no green.
  • Your tree develops a pronounced lean in one direction.
  • Trees have peeling bark which cracks or splits easily.
  • Missing branches, missing leaves, or leaf rust.
  • Fungus growing at the base of the tree.

If you catch any or multiple of these signs, your tree may be in distress. Consult a local professional arborist as soon as possible. They can evaluate whether your tree can be saved or if it needs to be cut down.

Are Cottonwood Trees Good for Anything?

As fast-growing trees, a black cottonwood tree makes a great shade tree within a couple of years. They can also make an effective windbreak provided you live in a lightly windy area. Sadly, this is about as much use as you’ll get out of a cottonwood tree.

  • Cottonwoods make great shade trees.
  • Cottonwood lumber isn’t prized but their wood pulp makes for high quality paper.

In terms of timber, cottonwood is considered low quality for lumber. It has an unattractive grain and the wood shrinks and warps easily. This hasn’t stopped it from being used for low-quality needs like pallets or boxes. However, cottonwood pulp is known to make high-quality paper for publishing. 

Should You Cut Down Your Cottonwood Tree?

You should probably cut down your cottonwood tree. While they make for beautiful trees, they have a number of downsides that make them a nuisance to maintain. Allergy sufferers will hate them because they are profuse pollen spreaders. Masses of seeds get everywhere in the spring. These seeds are awful to deal with as their cottony fibers get into everything and are hard to clean out.

  • Cottonwoods have many drawbacks that make them difficult to deal with.
  • Pollen from cottonweed trees can cause allergy issues. 
  • Cottonwoods are prone to disease, and have invasive roots.
  • It may be worth replacing your cottonwood with a lower maintenance tree.

Cottonwoods have potentially invasive roots that help prevent soil erosion but can easily ruin pavement and sewer lines. Property owners may worry that such a tall tree can cause severe property damage if it falls down. Potential damage to public property is the number one reason cities cut down their cottonwoods. Cottonwood catches fungal disease easily and their shallow root system fails to support them.

What is the Lifespan of a Cottonwood Tree?

A mature tree of the cottonwood family can live up to 400 years. However, this is uncommon and you’re more likely to see these trees live for only 70–100 years. Let’s go over the key information we’ve learned about cottonwood trees in this article:

  • Cottonwoods live for around a century but can live longer in the right conditions.
  • The oldest cottonwoods are currently found in British Columbia.
  • Cottonwoods grow rapidly during their first 30 years of life.
  • The quickest way to check if your cottonwood is dying is to check for leaf issues of fungus at the base of the tree.
  • Cottonwoods make great shade trees but have little other value.
  • Cottonwood trees have many drawbacks and you may want to consider cutting yours down.

While majestic cottonwood trees are greatly admired, they are hard to maintain. It’s definitely worth considering getting rid of them in favor of easier to maintain trees. If you do decide to keep your cottonwood, consult your local garden center for tips on preventing fungal infections.

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