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What Is the State Tree of Nebraska? History, Benefits, & Uses

eastern cottonwood tree in a forest

The state of Nebraska is known for its rolling plains that extend across the state. It is the 37th most populous state in the US and 16th largest state by area. After the residents, historians, and legislature from this beautiful state combined their efforts in the search for the perfect tree to represent their state, they were able to find one right in their own backyard—the Eastern Cottonwood.

The Eastern Cottonwood is easily recognizable from its clumps of cotton-type seed fluff that bloom in the springtime. The seeds then drift with the air, landing on everything from windows to windscreens and driveways. Cottonwood seeds might be annoying to remove from porches and streets, but the tree has played a huge role in Nebraska’s history.

In this article, we will discuss how the Eastern Cottonwood was decided as Nebraska’s state symbol, its characteristics and uses, as well as other notable state symbols in Nebraska.

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How Was It Decided?

All 50 states in America have a state tree designated to represent the history, culture, and work ethics of its residents. This concept can be traced back to the 1800s when states began to form their own unique personalities, identifying themselves through their own symbols such as state birds, flowers, trees, flags, and even their own nicknames.

In 1972, the Eastern Cottonwood (Salicaceae Populus deltoides) was officially named Nebraska’s first state tree. It replaced the American Elm (Ulmus Americana) when a resolution introduced by Senator Alois Slepicka of Wilber was passed on February 15th, 1937.

Eastern Cottonwood was a viable symbol to represent Nebraska because of its beauty and historical background. The law designating the cottonwood as the official Nebraska state tree is found in the Nebraska Statutes, Chapter 90 (Special Acts) Section 90-114.

Initially, a bill introduced by Sen. Calvin Carsten of Avoca, originally called for the Green Ash tree to be the state tree. However, the bill was later amended in parliament in favor of cottonwood as the ideal choice to represent the state of Nebraska for various reasons as seen below:

  • First, cottonwood was ideal because green elm trees were easily destroyed by Dutch elm disease.
  • Second, cottonwood is commonly associated with the pioneers of Nebraska. It is a widely known fact among historians that George Washington sat on this famous cottonwood species when signing his first treaty. This is perhaps one of the most significant historical values of cottonwood in the US. Moreover, the first settlers in the state used cottonwood trees as famous early landmarks. Native Americans utilized different parts of the cottonwood tree to make various things ranging from medicinal herbs to dugout canoes. It was also considered a sacred tree by several Native American tribes.
  • Lastly, cottonwood species are among the fastest growing tree species spread throughout Nebraska and are rapidly colonizing other trees in North America. A young cottonwood tree can grow 6 feet taller each year. The tree has spread throughout Nebraska and thrives next to rivers, streams, creeks, ponds, marshes, lakes, and reservoirs. It’s hard to ignore the dominance of this tree all over the state of Nebraska.

How to Identify Cottonwood Trees

The Eastern Cottonwood is among the top 100 most common tree species thriving in North America. Even though the tree is rather soft to the touch, it is one of the largest hardwood species in the US, stretching as far north as Southern Canada.

Here are the general characteristics:
  • All mature cottonwood species reach up to a height of 100 feet tall.
  • The lowest branches of mature cottonwood species may be too high to reach, and the crown can be as wide as the tree height.
  • Cottonwood trees grow in areas with high moisture content such as rivers, lakes, marshes, and ponds.
  • Cottonwood branches are thick and long. However, they are weak and routinely break off the tree making the foliage uneven and rugged.

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Top 5 Benefits & Uses of the Cottonwood Tree

1. Supporting Wildlife

The expansive branches and lush green leaves support a variety of wildlife. Sure, wild turkeys will navigate the intricate limb structure of a cottonwood tree to find a place to roost at night, but these birds are not the only wildlife species that utilize the tree for survival.

  • Raptors such as bald eagles and red-tailed hawks often use cottonwood trees for night roosts, hunting perches, and nest sites.
  • Birds like the grosbeaks eat the seeds of the tree.
  • Animals like beavers use cottonwood tree branches to make lodges and dams. They also eat the buds and barks of the tree for sustenance.
  • Mammals like mice, white-tailed deer, and cottontail rabbits also make a meal from the twigs, stems, leaves, and shoots of cottonwood trees.

2. Supporting the Ecosystem

As soon as cottonwood trees start to die, the hollow cavities in the tree are used by more than 40 animal species as nesting and roosting grounds.

  • Squirrels are fond of making permanent residents inside cottonwood tree trunks. The hollow trunks are also tremendously valuable to a huge variety of cavity-dependent birds like woodpeckers. Woodpeckers not only feed on the insects that the tree supports but also make dwellings in them.
  • Bees also rely on cottonwoods to harvest the resin they use to make beehives. The tree has antimicrobial properties which make beehives less susceptible to diseases.
  • Hollowed-out cottonwood trees are even used by bats as a natural habitat.
  • When cottonwood starts to decompose, it also serves as a food source for some caterpillars.

3. Improves Aquatic Habitats

As the cottonwood goes through the cycle of life, it will eventually start to rot and some of its debris could end up in any of many of Nebraska’s rivers.

  • The tree debris that ends up in the rivers will provide shelter for fish and other aquatic animals in a reservoir or river setting.
  • During the dry seasons when the water levels are at an all-time low, cottonwood saplings provide a cover to the exposed reservoir bottoms. They also provide excellent aquatic habitat when the water levels rise back in the pool.

4. Environmental Benefits

Due to the tree’s fast growth rate and resiliency, it has adapted to oversaturated soils found adjacent to water bodies. This is why cottonwoods are used in terrestrial habitat projects. The Nebraska Forest Services plant cottonwoods in riparian lands to act as filter strips and near streams to reduce siltation and stabilize the stream banks.

Cottonwoods are also planted in multiple rows for use as windbreaks because of their height and wild branches

5. Other Uses

Traditionally, the shoots of the trees were collected by settlers who planted them for their homestead claims.

Today, the Eastern Cottonwood’s crown can provide a reprieve from the day’s heat with a shade that can stretch up to 75 feet. Mature cottonwood trees shade Nebraska residents in parks, and wild areas for outdoor activities such as picnicking, fishing, or camping.

It is one of the easiest species to propagate and the fastest to deliver results. Unfortunately, the tree has a lifespan of 70 years—shorter than other tree species.

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Other Plant Symbols Used in the State of Nebraska

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The Cottonwood tree was officially designated as the Nebraska State tree in 1972, replacing the original selection made in 1937 of the American Elm trees, which were susceptible to diseases. Also, cottonwood trees have a lot of historical value for the residents of Nebraska.

Cottonwood trees can be traced back to the 1800s when settlers used them as landmarks and to create homestead claims. Today, the tree is used to reclaim riparian land, feed Nebraska wildlife, and improve aquatic habitats. The tree also supplies most of the lumber used in Nebraska today.

As exasperating as the cottonwood tree can be, it is an invaluable historical and natural resource. As a state symbol, cottonwood is an ideal representation of Nebraska’s culture, history, and work ethic. Thus, it should be celebrated.

Featured Image Credit: Aleksandra Duda, Shutterstock


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