12 Important Willow Species

Sunbeams Through Willow Tree in Morning Fog
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    The Salix Genus

    A set of weeping willow trees
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    Willows include more than 400 trees and shrubs from the Salix genus of plants. These moisture-loving plants are native to temperate and cold regions in the northern hemisphere. In addition to the many separate species, willows easily hybridize, producing crosses between species.

    Description

    Depending on species, sizes range from low-ground-hugging shrubs to towering giants of 90 feet or more. All willows are moisture-loving plants that will do well in wet, boggy conditions. In fact, it's wise to be cautious about planting willows near sewer lines or water pipes, because the roots will naturally gravitate to them.

    Most species of Salix considered willows have lance-shaped leaves, although some species have narrower leaves (these species are known as osiers), while others have rounder leaves (most of these species are known as sallows). Willows are dioecious plants, meaning that the plants have either male or female characteristics. Both genders produce catkins in the spring, and cross-pollination is necessary in order for the plants to produce fertile seeds. New plants can also be easily propagated from root cuttings. 

    Uses for Willow

    In landscape use, willows are often planted alongside streams, because the interlacing roots will hold back soil and prevent erosion. The root networks are sometimes larger than the above-ground branch systems, making willows a valuable planting in wetland restoration efforts, where the trees help filter water and prevent run-off. The wood tends to be brittle, so landscape use is limited to a relatively few species. 

    Because willow branches will readily grow together, willows are sometimes used to create living fences or even sculptures. Approach grafting can be used to speed the process along.

    Willow branches are commonly used in basketry and weaving since the wood is flexible enough to be bent once it has been soaked in water. 

    Some willows will develop a diamond pattern on their branches,  usually caused by a fungal infection, that inspires the name diamond willow. This type of wood is favored by wood carvers due to its striking pattern. Diamond willow branches can be used to make walking and hiking sticks, as well as decorative furniture.

    Medicinal Uses

    Many cultures have used willow bark for pain relief, thanks to a compound in willow bark called salicin. In the 1800s, scientists were able to pinpoint this compound in the bar, leading to the development of commercial aspirin. Salicylic acid, a chemical based on salicin, is also used for treating acne.

    Among the hundreds of willow species, there are a handful that are most useful and 

     

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  • 02 of 13

    Bebb Willow

    A bebb willow
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    Bebb willow is the most commonly used diamond willow and features the namesake patterns inside its stems, which are highlighted in carved wood pieces. Once established, this species is relatively drought tolerant. 

    • Scientific name: Salix bebbiana
    • Other common names: Beaked willow, Bebb's willow, gray willow, diamond willow, long-beaked willow
    • Native to: the Northern United States and Canada
    • USDA Zones: Hardy to Zone 3
    • Height: 10 to 30 feet tall
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  • 03 of 13

    Corkscrew Willow

    A corkscrew willow tree
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    This variety is favored due to its twisting branches that can add winter interest. The corkscrew willow is also used as an accent in floral arrangements and as bonsai. This species is closely related to the weeping willow, and some botanists consider it to be the same tree. Other cultivars include 'Golden Curls' and 'Scarlet Curls.'

    The corkscrew willow is at least somewhat drought-tolerant after establishment, so it is easier to work this variety into any location.

    • Scientific name: Salix matsudana 'Tortuosa.'
    • Other common names: Curly willow, globe willow, dragon's claw, twisted twig willow, Pekin willow, Hankow willow
    • Native to: Northeastern China
    • USDA Zones: 4 to 8
    • Height: 20 to 40 feet tall
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  • 04 of 13

    Coyote Willow

    Close-up of a coyote willow
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    Some experts identify two subspecies of this plant—Salix exigua exigua and Salix exigua interior (sometimes called sandbar willow). This is a shrubby form of willow, often used to make flexible poles or building materials. Rustic furniture is often made from the branches of this plant. This species is considered endangered in some parts of the eastern U.S. 

    • Scientific name: Salix exigua exigua or S. exigua interior
    • Other common names: Sandbar willow, narrow leaf willow, dusky willow, gray willow
    • Native to: North America
    • USDA Zones: 2 to 9
    • Height: 6 to 15 feet tall
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  • 05 of 13

    Dappled Willow

    Dappled willow shrub leaves
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    This willow shrub works well as a specimen plant since the leaves are variegated, featuring shades of pink, green and white. The pink comes when the leaves first appear and will fade to just green and white as the season progresses. As a bonus, the branches turn an attractive red in the winter.

    This willow may also be sold under the variety name of ‘Albomaculata.’ Another willow with similar markings is Salix integra 'Flamingo.'

    • Scientific mame: Salix integra 'Hakuro-nishiki.'
    • Other common names: Variegated willow, Nishiki willow, Japanese dappled willow, Japanese variegated willow, tricolor willow
    • Native to: Russia, Japan, Korea, northeastern China
    • USDA Zones: 4 to 9
    • Height: 4 to 6 feet tall
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  • 06 of 13

    Goat Willow

    A closeup of a goat willow
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    Goat willow is one of the willow species that is also sometimes known as pussy willow. Goat willow is often grown for the attractive puffy catkins. Kept closely pruned, it is sometimes used for hedges and screens. The goat willow is one of a few willow species that does not propagate easily from cuttings, so both a male and female plant will be needed for proper pollination.

    • Scientific name: Salix caprea
    • Other common names: Pussy willow, great sallow, European pussy willow, French pussy willow
    • Native to: Western and central Asia, Europe
    • USDA Zones: 4 to 8
    • Height: 12 to 25 feet tall
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  • 07 of 13

    Peach-Leaf Willow

    A peach-leaf willow
    Andrey Zharkikh/flickr/CC By 2.0

    As you can probably guess from the common name, the leaves on this willow resemble peach tree leaves. Like the goat willow, propagation is done by seeds, since cuttings will not root easily, if at all. It is a fairly large tree that grows quickly but does not live to an old age. It can be used to quickly fill bare areas and to control erosion. In natural settings, it can often be found growing alongside cottonwood trees. 

    • Latin Name: Salix amygdaloides
    • Other common names: Almond willow, Wright willow
    • Native to:  The United States and southern Canada
    • USDA Zones: 3 to 5
    • Height: 30 to 50 feet tall
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  • 08 of 13

    Purple Osier Willow

    A closeup of a purple osier willow
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    The purple osier willow is a shrub with juvenile stems that are purple and leaves that are blue-green. It can handle some shade and dry soil. It is normally planted in order to control erosion along streams and lakes. It can also be planted as a hedge, or the attractive flowers and stems can be used in crafts. This is a willow that has been used for treatment of pain, thanks to the presence of salicin in the bark.  

    • Latin name: Salix purpurea
    • Other common names: Basket willow, Alaska blue willow, purple willow, blue Arctic willow, purple osier willow
    • Native to: Western Asia, North Africa, and Europe
    • USDA Zones: 3 to 7
    • Height: 8 to 10 feet tall
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  • 09 of 13

    Pussy Willow

    A closeup of a pussy willow
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    Along with the goat willow, this is the American willow species that fall under the common name pussy willow. The pussy willow is commonly grown for use by the floral design industry. In landscapes, it sometimes appears in hedges and the rain gardens. 

    • Latin name: Salix discolor
    • Other common names: American pussy willow, glaucous willow, large pussy willow, American willow
    • Native to: North America
    • USDA Zones: 4 to 8
    • Height: 2 to 25 feet tall, depending on the variety
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  • 10 of 13

    Scouler's Willow

    A close-up of a Scouler's Willow
    Matt Lavin/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

    Scouler's willow can tolerate drier conditions than many willows, though not quite to the level of being completely drought-tolerant. This is another diamond willow and was discovered by John Scouler. In addition to the use of its wood in carving, Scouler's willow is sometimes planted as a hedge or to control erosion along water, though caution is adviced since this plant can be invasive. 

    • Latin name: Salix scouleriana
    • Other common names: Scouler willow, black willow, fire willow, mountain willow, Nuttall willow, mountain pussy willow, upland willow
    • Native to: Western North America
    • USDA Zones: 3 to 9
    • Height: Up to 50 feet tall
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  • 11 of 13

    Weeping Willow

    Weeping willow
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    Weeping willow is perhaps the most well-known of all landscape trees with a weeping habit. It works well to grace a pond or lake, but can also be used as a landscape specimen tree in larger yards. The branches will sway delightfully in the breeze, though stronger winds might break off some of the stems and litter the ground. Plan on replacing it in about 30 years, as weeping willows are not long-lived.

    • Latin Name: Salix babylonica
    • Native to: Northern China
    • USDA Zones: 4 to 9a; zone 10 if watered consistently
    • Height: 35 to 50 feet tall
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  • 12 of 13

    White Willow

    A sprig of white willow on a white background
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    The white willow may sometimes be infected by fungi that produce the diamond willow characteristic. Its name comes from the fact that the leaves are white underneath. It is not a good tree in most landscape situations but is sometimes used to fill in low wet spots. One popular variety, Salix alba ‘Tristis’ is sold as golden weeping willow. The stems are often used in basket-weaving.

    • Latin name: Salix alba
    • Native to: Western and central Asia, Europe
    • USDA Zones: 2 to 9
    • Height: 50 to 100 feet tall
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  • 13 of 13

    Yellow Willow

    A closeup of a yellow willow
    Image by Matt Lavin/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

    A favorite food of moose, elk, sheep, and beavers, yellow willow occurs naturally across much of western and central North America, and it is sometimes planted to repair areas that have had floods, erosion or other problems. It reproduces easily both through cuttings and seeds. In addition to Salix lutea, several other willow varieties are also known as yellow willow. 

    • Latin names: Salix lutea (also Salix rigida var. watsoniiSalix cordata var. luteaSalix cordata var. watsonii and Salix cordata var. platyphylla.
    • Native to: North America
    • USDA Zones: 2 to 9
    • Height: Can be over 20 feet tall