Rio Grande Cottonwood

Rio Grande Cottonwood Tree

Rio Grande Cottonwood Tree

Scientific name: Populus wislizeni

Alternate names: Narrowleaf, Alamo or Guerigo

Description: This is the cottonwood of desert waterholes and watercourses. A deciduous poplar of the Willow family with broad, flattened, open crown of large, widely spreading branches & trunk diameter of 2 to 5 feet. Easily propagated from cuttings, it is extensively planted in its range along irrigation ditches. Although it is a fast-growing shade tree, it is short-lived.

Rio Grande Cottonwood Leaves

Rio Grande Cottonwood Leaves

Bark: The heartwood of this tree is deeper brown than that of Fremont cottonwood but the sapwood is white. On older trees, the bark is thick, deeply furrowed, reddish brown. On branches or on young trees, bark is thin, smooth and gray-brown.

Leaves: Roughly triangular in shape, 2 to 2.5 inches long and 2.5 to 3 inches wide. They are shiny green with a thin yellow midrib, a coarsely toothed margin & a yellow, flattened stem that causes the leaf to shake back & forth in the wind. Leaves turn bright yellow in autumn.

Rio Grande Cottonwood Fruit

Rio Grande Cottonwood Fruit

Twigs: light green, stout, hairless.

Flowers: Catkins 2 to 3 1/2 inches long, reddish; male and female on separate trees in early spring.

Fruits: Multiple 1/2 inch long, egg-shaped, seed bearing capsules in a clump, hairless, light brown, maturing in spring, splitting into 3 or sometimes 4 parts with many cottony seeds.

Habitat: Wet soils along streams or near lakes in deserts, grasslands & woodlands

Range: This tree occurs along the Rio Grande from Mexico to southern Colorado and in the San Juan basin in northwest New Mexico and southwest Colorado.

Rio Grande Cottonwood Bark

Rio Grande Cottonwood Bark

Height: 40 to 80 feet

Elevation: Up to 6500 feet

Water Requirements: Moderate-High. Rio Grande cottonwood grows only on wet soil and is an indicator of permanent water and shade. In the desert, it needs weekly watering during hot weather if roots cannot tap the water table.

Wildlife: Horses gnaw the sweetish bark; beavers feed on the bark and build dams with the branches.

8 comments “Rio Grande Cottonwood”

Hi, I am late to this post but will try anyways. I live in Albuquerque in a fairly urban area. I have two small cottonwoods (about 4 feet high) growing randomly, i.e. we did not plant these. I am wondering if I should cut them down before they grow bigger, or if it is okay to allow them to grow. They are both in areas where we plan on planting a tree regardless. I worry about the short life span. Thanks for any advice you have!

You say these trees are short-lived. Typically, how long do they live?

Lance, thanks for visiting the TNM website. Cottonwoods are a soft wood tree, in comparison to hard wood trees (like Oaks Maples etc), the Cottonwood is short lived. They can live to about 100 years. Thanks! Sue

Hi Lesley, those trees should be fine. Hope they are doing well! Sue

Golf Course & adjacent ponds are going out of business. Will mature large cottonwood trees survive on a drip water system?

Why the star shape in center of branches

Where branches connect there are often shapes seen. It has to do with water, or chemicals absorbed, or previous damage. Thanks for visiting Tree New Mexico, Suzanne

Hi, thanks for visiting the Tree New Mexico site. I would need a few more details because it would depend on the area/location and the drip system itself. Suzzanne


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