Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Our majestic cottonwood trees

with 39 comments

On December 21st, the date of the winter solstice in 2020, I witnessed another display of colorful year-end foliage in the form of two venerable eastern cottonwoods, Populus deltoides subsp. deltoides. Botanist Bill Carr describes the cottonwood tree in Travis County as “uncommon but, due to its massive size, usually conspicuous in gallery woodlands along perennial streams and impoundments.” The two I found were on opposite sides of Pleasant Valley Rd. just south of the Longhorn Dam on the Colorado River. The first picture shows a lower portion of the cottonwood tree on the west side of the road. The other cottonwood, pictured below, had leaves that the different angle of the light made look a little more yellow-orange.

It’s not obvious that some of the leaves were larger than
a person’s face; here’s one in isolation by the Colorado River:

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 2, 2021 at 4:35 AM

39 Responses

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  1. You have done the cottonwood justice in these three lovely images. They are one of my favorite trees. We have many on our property – along the old river channel, the slough and on the west end of the property. I often sit beneath them in the warmer months, listening to the leaves rustle in the wind. It’s a special sound.


    January 2, 2021 at 6:04 AM

    • Sounds like they’re more common in central Oklahoma than down here in central Texas. Do you know how tall the tallest of your cottonwoods is? The way the leaves move so easily in the wind proved a problem for me in getting a close-up of a single leaf; we had a breeze and the leaves didn’t want to hold still.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 2, 2021 at 7:41 AM

  2. Cottonwoood leaves have such n bright golden glow. We have them up here along the Willamette and Santiam Rivers, though I remember them best from back east along the Connecticut River. At bloom time they smelled like cat urine, and with so many cottonwoods along the river there, it was intense.

    Lavinia Ross

    January 2, 2021 at 9:04 AM

    • Leave it to a cat fancier to make that connection to cottonwood trees. Because the species in Texas is called the eastern cottonwood, I figured you must have a different species from the one you knew along the Connecticut River, so I went looking and found out that in central Oregon it’s the black cottonwood, Populus trichocarpa, which I’d not heard of till now:


      Steve Schwartzman

      January 2, 2021 at 11:18 AM

      • Thanks for the link, Steve. So we have a different species of cottonwood out here, which does not have the cat urine odor. Cat urine has an especially pungent odor. Imagine an entire area along a major river that stinks like a liter box. That was Connecticut at cottonwood bloom time.

        Lavinia Ross

        January 3, 2021 at 9:34 AM

        • Not exactly the way Connecticut tourist bureaus would want to play up their cottonwood trees!

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 3, 2021 at 9:50 AM

  3. These are marvelous trees that we share. I love the wavy edge of the leaves.


    January 2, 2021 at 9:09 AM

    • Yes, another shared species. The wavy edges of the leaves caught my fancy, too. If I remember, next fall I may try to do some close abstractions of those wavy edges.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 2, 2021 at 11:19 AM

  4. I never realized how beautiful they are in the fall until moving to Northern NV. A family member here detests them for the mess they make in the summer though. 😀


    January 2, 2021 at 11:17 AM

    • It’s good that you’ve got some cottonwoods to enjoy in northern Nevada. As a photographer I’d revel in all the summertime fluff, but I understand why a non-photographer might get annoyed.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 2, 2021 at 11:23 AM

  5. Very special trees–they’re one of the things we really miss about Nebraska.


    January 2, 2021 at 2:36 PM

    • I wouldn’t have associated cottonwood trees with Nebraska. Shows how little I know about the state, having been in it for only two days, and only the far western part at that.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 2, 2021 at 3:04 PM

  6. This species has a huge range, and looks very much like the cottonwood that is native here, which also has an extensive range. There are not many places where a cottonwood of some sort is not native.


    January 2, 2021 at 4:29 PM

    • A huge range indeed. Here’s the map for Populus deltoides (and there are other species also called cottonwood).

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 2, 2021 at 4:34 PM

      • The species here is of a different variety though, like Populus deltoides ‘Fremontii’, or something like that. (Populus fremontii is a different species.)


        January 2, 2021 at 8:12 PM

        • That’s confusing.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 2, 2021 at 9:17 PM

          • YES! Fremont cottonwood was popular among the ‘natives’ crowd, but I can not imagine why. It is still a cottonwood, with all the associated problems that make it impractical for average suburban gardens. Regardless, I am not sure I would recognize one if I saw it. Heck, I am not even certain of the species of the cottonwoods right outside!


            January 3, 2021 at 12:37 AM

            • From what you say, it’s hard to tell the species apart.

              Steve Schwartzman

              January 3, 2021 at 6:05 AM

              • The Fremont cottonwood is supposedly quite distinct from the others; but if I had ever seen one, I did not recognize it as distinct. The others all look the same to me.


                January 3, 2021 at 4:58 PM

  7. Beautiful! I like those arcing branches and the single leaf against that blue water – that’s a very nice image! I looked ours up – it’s a different one, P. balsamifera, but it seems very similar to me. 🙂 I found out that the balsamifera refers to a resinous substance in the buds. I have seen people collecting them in the spring to be used medicinally.


    January 2, 2021 at 7:54 PM

    • Based on several comments I searched and found out about some of the other Populus species that are called cottonwoods, like your balsamifera. The word balsam certainly suggests medicinal use.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 2, 2021 at 8:45 PM

  8. The cottonwoods were one of my favorite aspects of the Kansas landscape. They follow the rivers, of course, so from any of the somewhat uncommon promontories, it’s easy to find the water. When I was there in October, they were in full color, and glorious. There were several species that grew in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons when I was in Salt Lake City. At the time, it never would have occured to me to sort out (or even acknowledge the presence of ) different species, but I certainly admired their fall color.


    January 3, 2021 at 9:01 AM

    • Then maybe your October visit set you up for a post alliteratively titled Kansas Cottonwoods. Now you’ve made me want to visit the Cottonwood Canyons on the east side of Salt Lake City, something to include in a desired return trip to Utah. Like you back then, I didn’t realize that there are several Populus species that are call called cottonwoods, alongside others called aspens.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 3, 2021 at 9:32 AM

      • I really enjoyed Little Cottonwood Canyon the most. At that time, it was less populated, better for hiking than driving, and had several small lakes and alpine meadows as you gained altitude.


        January 3, 2021 at 9:34 AM

        • I can relate to less populated. It’s been over 20 years since we visited Salt Lake City, which must be noticeably more congested now.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 3, 2021 at 9:48 AM

  9. I guess the Colorado River has many cottonwoods along the banks. I enjoy photographing them here along rivers and creeks as well.


    January 3, 2021 at 2:53 PM

    • I see cottonwoods from place to place around town. I only wish I encountered more of them, and in more places where I can get clear shots without human elements. At the site shown here I had to be careful in aiming so I could exclude wires and other undesirable things.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 3, 2021 at 3:05 PM

  10. Gorgeous golden display …


    January 8, 2021 at 12:49 PM

  11. It is hard to gauge the size of the leaf in that last shot but lacking a sense of scale makes for a good abstract of nature.

    Steve Gingold

    January 12, 2021 at 2:57 AM

  12. With the photos small, it almost looks like a Ginkgo! Considering the leaves are still on, is it a late winter out there?

    Scott Dee

    January 25, 2021 at 9:09 PM

    • I took this picture on December 21st, so it was officially the end of fall and these leaves were obliging by falling off. I imagine that a few days later they were all gone. It’s not unusual in our warm climate to see some deciduous trees with their leaves still on in December.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 25, 2021 at 9:55 PM

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