With a scientific name like Froelichia floridana, you'd expect cottonweed to be a Florida native. You'd be right. But it's hardly a Florida exclusive.
Cottonweed is found throughout most of the eastern and central parts of the United States, but is rare in South Florida, according to the Institute for Regional Conservation. It's found in most of Florida's 67 counties, although a little hit-and-miss in the Panhandle.
It has a wiry and erect stem, and grows between 18 inches to three feet tall. It can be unbranched or sparsely branched. Cottonweed leaves are long and narrow but can vary considerably in size and shape. They also tend to concentrate toward the bottom third of the stem. The stems have prominent red nodes. It flowers in the spring and summer months, sending out spikes of small white flowers that can have a tinge of pink or red. But it's the fruit of plant, fluffy and white, that inspires the name. Cottonweed prefers dry, sandy soils, including sandy coastal areas and inland sand hills.
Cottonweed is classified as endangered in Ohio, where there's a small, isolated population in the Southeastern part of the state. At the same time, Nebraska lists the plant as a noxious weed. Oddly enough, cottonweed has become a problem in Australia. A shipment of contaminated buffel grass seed imported from the United States in the 1950s for use in pastures in Queensland apparently was the source. Cottonweed, called cottontails down under, has spread throughout pasture lands in the region, and agricultural officials are trying to determine how big a threat it might pose. Not only is it spreading, it's not good forage. Animals won't touch the stuff unless there's nothing else to eat. It's also found in Hungary, but apparently is better behaved.
There are actually two varieties of cottonweed, roughly divided east and west along the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys, with some overlap. In Florida, when you see cottonweed, you're looking at F. floridana var. floridana. Out west, in Missouri, for example, it's F. floridana var. campestris.
The genus name, Froelichia, by the way, honors Joseph Froelich, an 18th and 19th century German botanist of note.
Cottonweed is a member of Amaranthaceae, the amaranth family. Other common names include snakecotton, field snakecotton, Florida snakecotton, prairie snakecotton, prairie froelichia, cottontails, cotton-tails, large cottonweed, and Florida cottonweed. It's also spelled snake-cotton.
The ominous sounding snakecotton comes from the dry and rocky places where it tends to grow and where snakes are likely found.