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The eastern cottonwood tree (Populous deltoides) is a native North American tree that is common in eastern and central United States as well as southern Canada. Many people recognize this tree from the cottony substance that falls from the trees in early summer. This “cotton” acts as a sail to move the seeds as far from the parent tree as possible. Cottonwood trees are a riparian species which means that they thrive in wet and semi-wet conditions, but these trees can also handle drought which makes them very well suited to a range of environments. These trees are often seen along the edge of water bodies. Cottonwood trees are known to grow very large, in fact they are one of the largest deciduous trees in North America, one tree in Pennsylvanian was recorded to be over 100′ tall. Cottonwood trees are also known to be brittle and I personally have seen a number of them break in moderate winds. Cottonwood trees are recognized by many people but the edibility of their leaves and health benefits of cottonwood buds are often overlooked. This article primarily refers to eastern cottonwood, but this information likely applies to other cottonwoods such as fremont’s cottonwood(Populus fremontii) which is native to the southwestern U.S.
Edibility of Cottonwood Leaves
This was a surprise to me when I learned that not only are cottonwood leaves edible but they are extremely nutritious. According to a very reputable edible plant database (pfaf.org) cottonwood leaves contain a greater amino acid content then rice, corn, wheat, and barley. One problem I see with eating cottonwood leaves is the taste. This is a tree that is very abundant in my area and I have eaten small portions of cottonwood leaves before, but they tend to be very bitter. This bitterness might be able to be reduced by cooking or drying but I have not had the opportunity to experiment with that yet.
Health Benefits of Cottonwood Buds
Cottonwood buds and bark contain salicin which is a compound that likely breaks down into salicylic acid(asprin). Preparation of cottonwoods buds or bark with oil, or alcohol can make a natural medicinal product with similar properties to aspirin. This would be used externally or internally for pain relief, inflammation or fever. Other medicinal uses of cottonwood bark have been recorded such as treatment of whooping cough, tuberculosis, colds, and intestinal parasites. Whenever you make a product that concentrates the compounds of an edible plant the product may not be edible anymore, use caution if using any concentrated product internally. A closely related species (Populus balsamifera) is used to make a North American version of balm of gilead, a fragrant oil with medicinal benefits. These benefits are likely very similar to eastern Cottonwood buds and bark.
There are no major cautions associated with the plant, buds or leaves other than that some people may be allergic to cottonwood sap. There seems to be a link between people who are sensitive to bees also being sensitive to cottonwood sap. Exercise caution anytime you use a new product externally or internally.
Key ID Features
One good identification feature for cottonwood trees is their size, but that doesn’t help someone who is trying to harvest cottonwood buds or leaves. Another good identification feature is their deeply furrowed bark. These 2 features are shared by other related species such as the tuliptree(Liriodendron tulipifera). The leaf shape of cottonwood trees will set them apart from tuliptrees. Tuliptrees have very distinctive leaves. Cottonwood leaves are triangular with course teeth along the margins. Cottonwood buds are also somewhat distinctive, in winter and early spring they are large, long, and pointed. One last identification feature is to follow the cotton in early summer. Put all these identification features together and you should be able to confidently identify cottonwood trees.
This is one of those plants that a lot of people are aware of but many people simply view as a weed tree. Not only is this tree a native plant but it offers impressive nutritional and medicinal benefits as well. I would encourage more people to experiment with eating cottonwood buds and leaves in different ways. In my opinion this plant could be an important edible plant because of its high amino acid content, especially for people that don’t eat meat. If you love to try new wild edibles, give this a try and leave a comment below with your experiences.