Plant of the Week: Eastern cottonwood

On this cold December day, I'm reminded of the sheer beauty of the High Line's trees in the winter time. The naked silhouettes of the bare trees are enough to warm my soul while looking up through their vein-like branching structure. I can't stop my imagination from running wild visualizing the trees as the lungs of the earth, filtering the air we breathe and so quickly take for granted.

One such underappreciated tree found growing wild in our self-seeded landscape is Populus deltoides. Although commonly referred to as the Eastern cottonwood, Populus deltoides has a rather large habitat range that extends west to Colorado and north through Canada. A quick and easy way to identify Eastern cottonwood in the field is to look at the leaf; heart-shaped with small teeth on the leaf margin.

Another telling characteristic are the deep furrows on its bark, massive trunks, and stout branches. The Eastern cottonwood is a fast growing tree that can reach heights of up to 80 feet and prefers to grow in moist, well-drained, loamy soils tolerant of a wide variety of soil Ph ranging from acidic to basic (4.5 to 8). Eastern cottonwood is resistant to flood damage which could be handy if we get another superstorm like Sandy.

An interesting phenomenon is happening right now in our Western Rail Yards. This is an area of the park where we've left the spontaneous plants that grew while the rail line was in disuse, and we do as little management as possible. Populus deltoides is pioneering the forest succession of this uncultivated meadow landscape. What was once an abandoned rail yard is slowly turning into a secondary forest.

New construction in the park and adjacent sites are creating new environmental conditions, and the Western Rail Yards is slowly shifting its plant community. The new path, which drains water directly through the rail bed, has created a new microclimate and moist border. We are witnessing first-hand the ecological transformation of a meadow to a forest.


Eastern cottonwood can be best appreciated by planting in mass or grove. Populus deltoides can be used for erosion control and also as a successful windbreak.


You will find Populus deltoides holding fall color well into December, making it a nice winter welcome to any fall garden lovers. You can find the Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) at the northern most end of the park at 34th Street and the CSX Transportation Gate.

The High Line's planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 500 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line's rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today. Every week we share one of our gardeners' current favorites with you.

Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line's most important gardening projects.

TD Bank is the Presenting Green Sponsor of the High Line.

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