Biography of Durham’s Finest Tree* No. 11: Parkwood Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides)

by Wendy Diaz, EMGV

The 2016 Durham’s Finest Tree (DFT) nominations were evaluated in the fall of 2016. The winners were announced at the Trees Over Durham Forum on April 24, 2017 in the Durham Arts Council. Of the 16 trees nominated, seven met the criteria of a fine example of a tree species due to their size, historical importance or other meritorious significance.

The Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) behind the Parkwood Shopping Center and Baseball Diamond located off of Revere Road is the third DFT winner in the South Durham subdivision of Parkwood. The first DFT winner in Parkwood was a White Ash (Fraxinus americana)1 in 2015 and the second was a Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides)2 in 2016. The Parkwood Cottonwood won in the Large Category in 2016.

The Parkwood Eastern Cottonwood is 68 feet high with a trunk circumference of 98.5 inches and a canopy spread of 66 feet. The tree is fairly large for the species that typically grows from 50 to 80 feet with a broad open-shaped habit3. Nevertheless, the Parkwood Cottonwood is not nearly as large as the state champion located near the banks of the Roanoke River in Halifax County with a rare height of 144 feet, circumference of 260 inches and a crown spread of 86 feet4.

Broad open rounded-shape of mature Parkwood Eastern Cottonwood Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on May 18, 2017


Open habit of branches of mature Eastern Cottonwood. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on October 26, 2016

Species Description
The Eastern Cottonwood is native to eastern North America through to the Great Plains. It prefers medium to wet, well drained soils and is typically found along streams and rivers in lowlands3. This fast growing deciduous tree likes full sun and is dioecious with male reddish flowers or catkins and tiny green female flowers which turn into capsules and break open releasing densely-tufted seeds. The tree derives its common name from the silky white hairs on the seeds which float in the air and then accumulate on the ground and along fences3, etc. like cotton.

Cotton-like hairs on female seeds of the Eastern Cottonwood.5
Andrey Aharkikh, CC BY – 2.0
Male red catkins5
Dan Mullen, CC BY-NC-ND – 2.0

The bark is dark grey and ridged. The glossy dark green leaves are triangular-shaped and coarsely toothed (serrated margins) and 3 to 5 inches long. The tree is fast growing and may be useful in a rain garden as they prefer wet soils and full sun. The Eastern Cottonwood develops an extensive root system and the tree may damage sewer lines and buckle sidewalks3. The wood is weak and female trees can be particularly messy in an urban environment. The Parkwood Eastern Cottonwood is believed to be a female tree due to its yellow flowers observed this spring.

Yellow female catkins on Parkwood Eastern Cottonwood. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on March 16, 2018.
Dark grey and ridged bark of the Parkwood Eastern Cottonwood. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on May 18, 2017.
Glossy dark green triangle-shaped leaves of the Parkwood Eastern Cottonwood. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on May 18, 2017.

Local History
The Parkwood subdivision, up until its development in the early 1960’s, was a very remote wooded area of Durham County6. The first home was occupied in August, 19606 and the grand opening of the nearby Parkwood Shopping Center occurred on December 11, 19627. The award-winning Parkwood neighborhood was linked to the development of the Research Triangle Park (RTP) to provide housing for RTP employees and the Parkwood HOA was one of the first homeowners associations formed in North Carolina on September 25th, 19608. The Eastern Cottonwood is the fastest growing native tree in North America9 and the Parkwood Eastern Cottonwood is located adjacent to the Parkwood plaza and playground and probably dates back to its construction in 1962; making it over 50 years old.

There are a large number of diverse species of mature trees in the Parkwood subdivision due to its development over a half a century ago and to the natural buffer areas surviving near creeks in the subdivision. Many of these trees are native, such as the Parkwood Eastern Cottonwood, which can be viewed from the shopping center parking lot. Don’t be surprised to see ‘cotton’-like tendrils accumulating in the playground, if you visit the area in the early spring, because you will know it probably came from the Cottonwood tree.

*Durham’s Finest Trees program recognizes significant trees in Durham County, promotes discovery and ability to identify trees, and helps preserve the best examples of specific tree species, particularly native and those trees well adapted to Durham County. Durham naturalists and tree lovers of all ages are invited to submit their nominations for significant trees in Durham County now through October 1, 2018 for this year’s competition. Please read the official rules before submitting a nomination. See “Durham’s Finest Trees” on the  main menu above for more information.