Cottonwood Tree Symbolism and Meanings

 6 min read

Cottonwood trees have long held a special place in the hearts and minds of many cultural groups, serving as symbols of hope, abundance, and purity.

It’s important to keep in mind that the poplar (Populus) genus encompasses trees typically called poplars, cottonwoods, and aspens. Even though poplars and aspens have their blog posts this particular article will focus more on cottonwoods.

The cottonwood tree symbolism has been interpreted in different ways throughout history.

For many native peoples, the cottonwood tree was seen as a symbol of peace and protection.

The cottonwood branches were used in treaty negotiations to represent the trust and unity between different cultural groups. Native Americans considered the cottonwood tree to be a symbol of peace, using its branches during treaty negotiations.

The Choctaw tribe believed that cottonwood trees protected against evil spirits, while the Lakota used Cottonwood bark for cleansing ceremonies.

In Christian symbolism, cottonwood branches were often compared to the cross on which Jesus was crucified, serving as a symbol of redemption and sacrifice.

Today, cottonwoods continue to hold significance in many different cultures and religions, reminding us of their deep symbolic power.

Symbolism:Honesty, humility and self-sacrifice
Divine AssociationWakan Tanka, the Great Spirit or Supreme Being (Native North American)
Astrological Association:Sun
Historical Spotlight:In 1883, the US government banned the Sun Dance, an integral part of Native North American culture. However, it continued to be performed in secret until 1974, when Frank Fools Crow and other elders challenged the government by refusing to send their young men to fight in the Vietnam War without first performing a Sun Dance ceremony. They risked high penalties by dancing publicly, but afterwards, they were successful in winning back religious freedom for Indian nations.

About Cottonwood Trees

Cottonwood Tree
Cottonwood Tree

The cottonwoods are many American members of the Populus genus, most of which can reach a great height of 90ft (27m). Come springtime, the female trees let loose with fluffy wads of “cotton” that have come from their fruit capsules.

The Eastern cottonwood (P. deltoides) has a hugely broad crown–its ovate leaves possess a glossy upper side and they can be up to 7in (17.5cm) long.

Practical Uses

The Eastern cottonwood leaves are used by the children of various Native American tribes, such as the Dakota, Omaha, Pawnee and Ponka, to make toy tipis and moccasins.

The adult Omahas would use this wood to construct Buffalo Tents (a ceremony was held inside these tents to ensure that the souls of hunted buffaloes lived on).

The Navajo carve cradles and ceremonial carvings out of the wood of the Rio Grande cottonwood (P. deltoides ssp. wislizenii), while the Lakota use the roots of lanceleaf cottonwood (P. acuminata) to create ceremonial snake figurines and fire drills (to start fires).

The Havasupai make their drums from hollow logs of Fremont’s cottonwood (P. fremontii).

Natural Healing

The leaves of cottonwood poplars have anti-inflammatory and painkilling qualities, which is why they are often made into a decoction to treat bruises, wounds or insect stings.

Similarly, the Choctaw tribe relies on the steam created from boiling the stems, bark and leaves of Eastern cottonwoods to heal snakebites.

Folklore, Myth and Symbol of Cottonwood Tree

Cottonwood Tree in Winter
Cottonwood Tree in Winter

The cottonwood tree holds great significance for the Sioux tribe, as explained by the holy man and seer Black Elk. He explains that long ago, children played with its leaves and made playhouses out of them – leading to the invention of the tipi.

Black Elk emphasizes that grown people can learn from small ones because their hearts are pure. The Great Spirit reveals many things to them that older people wouldn’t be privy to. Additionally, in even a light breeze, you can hear wagachun – or ‘the rustling tree’.

This explains the cottonwood tree’s prayer to the Great Spirit. Furthermore, it isn’t only humans who pray–all living things do so. (An interesting side note: if you cut one of the upper branches of a cottonwood tree across its width, you will see a five-pointed star.

This symbol represents the divine presence in numerous cultures, such as the Celtic druids’ pentangle or the star symbol of Ishtar, a Sumerian goddess).

Every year, the Sioux Indians practice wiwanyag wachipi, or Sun Dance. According to Kablaya (the hero who first introduced Sun Dance to his people), this event should be held near a young cottonwood tree.

He said to the tree:

You O rustling cottonwood have been chosen in a sacred manner… for you will bring that which is good to all beings and all things

A year before the Sun Dance ritual, a cottonwood tree is ceremonially chosen. During that time, people visit the tree to say prayers of appreciation and make offerings of tobacco, prayer ties (small cloth bundles filled with herbs), and even tiny pieces of their flesh (medicine people preparing for the ceremony).

The dancers ready themselves by praying, fasting and participating in purification ceremonies.

A few days before the Sun Dance begins, those participating in the dance cut down a tree. They carry it to where the ceremony will take place – which is in the middle of an arbour or ceremonial hoop – and erect it there.

The round wooden construction has a roof that provides shade for spectators while dancers in the center are exposed to sunlight. Symbols associated with each of earth’s elements (earth, air, fire and water) are ritually placed in a hole beneath

the tree and attached to its branches and trunk during this time; as such, when finished, the cottonwood becomes known as the Tree of Life.

On the first day of the Sun Dance, when all preparations are complete and the sun rises, dancers enter the arbour from the east. For four days they dance from dawn to dusk without food or water.

Some might tie a rope to a high branch of one of the trees before the ceremony begins; during it, these same dancers can have their chests pierced with eagle claws and tie ropes to their new piercings.

Within this sacred circle, everyone present offers up his or her body and soul for the well-being of all people and creatures everywhere.

Many Native North American tribes have lost their ceremonies and traditions, but the Sioux are committed to helping others reconnect with their ancestral roots.

The Sun Dance is a sacred ceremony that only allows native-blood participants, however, outsiders are occasionally invited as guests.


The cottonwood tree has been around for centuries and is rich in symbolism and meaning.

If you are looking for a way to show your appreciation for nature, the cottonwood tree may be the perfect symbol for you.