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Willow (Family Salicaceae)


There are about 400 species in the Family Salicaceae including willows

and poplars. This family has always been taxonomically difficult and

continues to be. The Angiosperm Phylogeny Group recently reexamined

and reconfigured Family Salicaceae; further research can be anticipated.


Members of Salicaceae are distributed throughout the world (excepting

Antarctica), but are most common in temperate climates.


Many species of willows are important ecologically. Willows are often

species of early succession, and they are important in the early and

middle stages of successional recovery after disturbance. Because

willows grow quickly and are so easy to propagate using stem cuttings,

they are often used to vegetate stream banks to help prevent erosion and

sometimes to revegetate other types of disturbed lands. In addition to

reclamation, willows are an important browse of mammals such as deer,

moose, rabbits, hares, and other species, especially during the winter

when herbaceous forage is not very available. Willows may be an impor-

tant source of nectar for bees in the early spring, a time when few other

species of insect-pollinated plants are flowering. Willow honey may be a

locally significant product in some areas.


Tree-sized willows are sometimes used for lumber. The black willow is

the only species used much for this purpose in North America. Because

its wood is not very strong, it is generally used to manufacture boxes and

similar goods. However, because willow twigs are flexible, they have

been used to weave baskets and to make fences and lattices.


There has been research into the cultivation of tree-sized willows in

plantations for use as a biomass fuel. This use of willows as a source of

renewable energy may prove to be important in the future. The willow

biomass can be burned directly, or it can be chemically converted into

more easily portable liquid fuels such as alcohol or a synthetic, petroleum-

like mixture.


Willows have long had some use in folk medicine. Many cultures are

known to have chewed willow twigs to relieve pain and fever. The

original source from which salicylic acid was extracted was the bark

of the white willow (Salix alba) of Europe. This chemical is used to

manufacture acetylsalicylic acid (commonly known as aspirin), probably

the world's most important analgesic, used for treating pain, fever, and inflammation.


Some species of willows can be "straggly" and difficult to control, others
are deemed as haviing " good aesthetics" and are utilized in horticulture
and for ornamentation. One of the best known species for this purpose is
the weeping willow (Salix babylonica), a beautiful, pendulous tree that
has been widely introduced to North America as an ornamental tree. Other
non- native species that are commonly used in horticulture include the
crack willow (Salix fragilis) of Eurasia and the white willow (Salix alba)
and basket willow (Salix viminalis) of Europe. Some of these species have
escaped from cultivation and have become locally invasive in natural habi-
tats. Some wild willows also have pleasant aesthetics. Most famous in this
sense are the several species known as "pussy willows," especially the
pussy willow (Salix discolor).



Back to Inventory of Tree Families and Species

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