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Cottonwood tree. Niobrara Valley Preserve, Brown County, Nebraska. On a hot summers day, it's not hard to see why the Great Plains were called the "Great American Desert." A tall, majestic cottonwood can provide shade and relief as it did for many pioneers when Nebraska's plains were just being settled. Cottonwoods themselves can be considered "pioneers of the prairie" as trees were scarce and cottonwoods were some of the only trees that occasionally dotted the prairie landscape. They can live to be over 100 years old and can grow up to a towering 100 feet in height with a five foot diameter. Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.