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The eastern cottonwood, the state tree of Kansas, is inextricably linked with the history of the state and the settlement of the United States. The tree was a sign of welcome and respite for the many travelers who headed west in the mid-1800s in covered wagons, seeking a better life, establishing farms and setting up ranches in some areas. Pioneers learned that if they saw a stand of cottonwoods, they usually could find shade and shelter because cottonwoods grow near water. Certain cottonwoods became known to the pioneers as natural guideposts, such as the tree growing on land that today is part of Osage County. This cottonwood let travelers from Leavenworth find the spot where their route connected with the Santa Fe Trail.
The state tree of Kansas not only served pioneers well on their journey west on the Oregon and Santa Fe trails, it also helped them establish their home sites once they decided on a place to settle. The pioneers discovered it was quite easy to plant a cottonwood, usually requiring just placing a branch in the ground and giving it sufficient water. A legend in Kansas, disputed by some people, says one of these trees grew readily from a cottonwood construction stake that was stuck in the ground to support work being performed by a crew at the Capitol building in Topeka.
A relative of the willow tree, the state tree of Kansas is not a popular choice for urban landscapes because its root system can disturb a dwelling’s underground sewer and water lines. The cottonwood also is not a popular choice for wood products because its wood is weak. The tree grows quickly and reaches maturity in about a dozen years. A cottonwood can grow to a diameter of 5 feet (1.52 meters) and reach a height of 100 feet (30.48 meters).
The state tree of Kansas, scientifically known as Populus deltoides, was formally adopted as an official state symbol in 1937. The fluffy seed pods that look like puffs of soft white cotton led to the name "cottonwood." The tree’s favored location near bodies of water enables the seeds to travel far and reproduce more cottonwoods. Nebraska also adopted the cottonwood as its state tree.