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An Overview of the Native Willows of New York

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An Overview of the Native Willows of New York

bryan quinn

A close up of a prairie willow's (Salix humilis) spring catkin

A close up of a prairie willow's (Salix humilis) spring catkin

The health and vigor of many wetland environments is dependent on the presence of willow species. These water-loving plants provide benefits not only to the abiotic integrity of an ecosystem, but are also highly valuable to numerous insects and animals. Ranging in size from small shrubs to towering trees, members of the genus Salix, regardless of stature, are of tremendous importance when it comes to reducing erosion in hydric systems, one of the most dynamically variable of environments. Large and expansive root systems tightly grip sediment and keep shorelines in place. Mainly for this reason, willows are frequently used in habitat restoration projects. But, there are multiple secondary benefits that further enhance their prized status. These plants propagate easily and are fast growing. Willows possess the ability to sequester high levels of heavy metals, such as cadmium, thus helping to cleanse an environment of toxins. Densely branched and foliated trees overhanging streams and other riparian environments reduce water temperature, which is of benefit to cold water fish species, such as trout and perch. And finally, catkins produced in spring are quite beautiful and provide food for pollinating insects; leaves are consumed by caterpillars; and tightly clustered branches makes excellent cover for nesting birds or those trying to conceal themselves from predators.

In New York, the native willow species are as follows:

Balsam Willow (Salix pyrifolia)

  • Grows up to 12' (low to tall shrub).
  • Blooms from May to mid-June.
  • So-called due to the balsam-like odor of crushed leaves and twigs.
  • Does best in boggy environments.
  • Occurs only in the northern tier of the state. Rare.

Bearberry Willow (Salix uva-ursi)

  • Grows up to 1’ (dwarf shrub).
  • Blooms from mid-June to mid-July.
  • NYS threatened species found only in the Adirondacks.
  • Found atop high elevation mountain peaks in alpine or subalpine zones. Habitat preferences include summits, plateaus, and rocky ridges and ledges.

Bebb Willow (Salix bebbina)

  • Grows up to 30' (shrub to small bush tree).
  • Blooms from April to June.
  • Its wood is often used in the construction of furniture.
  • Fast growing, short-lived.
  • Adapted to a wide variety of soil textures. Prefers moist sites but is drought tolerant and can also tolerate moderately alkaline conditions. 
  • Can be found thriving in swamps, near lakes, stream borders, and also open woods and forests. It occurs most commonly in shady areas where sites are poor.

Black Willow (Salix nigra)

  • Grows between 30'-60' (small to medium sized tree).
  • Blooms from April to May.
  • Trunk may reach 14" in diameter topped with a broad, irregular crown.
  • Found along stream banks, swamps, farm ponds, and pasture sloughs. Can tolerate drier soil, but will have reduced vigor.
  • Average lifespan is approximately 65 years.
  • Can be used as an ornamental; provides ample shade in summer.
  • Its light wood is used for a variety of products, such as crates, barn floors, and toys.

Heart-leaved Willow (Salix rigida)

  • Grows between 3’-13’ (medium-sized shrub to small tree).
  • Blooms from April to May.
  • Grows in open woodlands with immature trees, soggy meadows, sandy swales, and fens.
  • Prefers wet to moist loam, calcareous sand or gravel.
  • Often used in basket making.

Meadow Willow (Salix petiolaris)

  • Grows up to 10’ (small shrub).
  • Blooms from April to June.
  • Prefers wet meadows, fens, lakeshores, stream banks, and forest clearings with moist conditions and abundant light. Associated with disturbed habitat.

Missouri River Willow (Salix eriocephala)

  • Grows up to 20’ (narrow shrub to small tree).
  • Blooms from February to March.
  • Grows in floodplains, wet meadows, and along large streams.
  •  Prefers sandy soils.

Peach-leaf Willow (Salix amygdaloides)

  • Grows up to 60' (medium sized tree).
  • Blooms in May.
  • So-called due to this willow's leaves resembling those of a peach tree. 
  • It can be found inhabiting the banks of streams and ponds, low woods, and roadside gullies.

Prairie Willow (Salix humilis)

  • Grows up to 10' (colonial shrub).
  • Blooms from April to May.
  • Adapted to upland sites, such as meadows or prairies (hence the name), and in sparse woods. 
  • Prefers sandy soil.

Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)

  • Grows between 6'-15' (large shrub to small tree).
  • Blooms from April to May.
  • An early bloomer that produces attractive buds and flowers. Male trees are most showy.
  • Widespread throughout New York.
  • Thrives in moist to wet soils, yet tolerates somewhat drier soils better than many other willows. Found in soggy thickets, floodplains forests, shrub swamps, and other damp, low lying areas.
  • Used as an ornamental.

Sageleaf Willow (Salix candida)

  • Grows between 3’-6’ (small shrub).
  • Blooms from April to May.
  • Prefers cold, open fens, bogs, and swamps. Has a high tolerance to alkaline conditions.
  • Possesses handsome woolly silver leaves.

Sandbar Willow (Salix interior)

  • Grows between 3'-20' (suckering shrub).
  • Blooms from May to June.
  • Frequently used in streambank and lakeshore stabilization and other restoration projects. Recommended for deep, wet lowland, overflow areas, and wet meadow sites—essentially anything with a high water table.
  • Quickly forms dense thickets; can be an aggressive spreader.
  • Adapted to sandy soils.
  • At droughty sites root cuttings are best. For all other sites, live stakes can be used.

Sand Dune Willow (Salix cordata)

  • Grows between 3’-12’ (small to medium-sized shrub).
  • Blooms from mid-April to mid-June.
  • NYS threatened species found only in northern NY along the shores of Lake Ontario.
  • Grows on sand dunes, along lakes shores and river banks—in sandy, silty, and gravelly soils. Requires full sun.

Silky Willow (Salix sericea)

  • Grows up to 13' (medium to tall shrub).
  • Blooms from early March to early June.
  • Widespread throughout New York.
  • Thrives in swamps, along rivers, and in swales.
  • The silky white leaf-backs shine beautifully when disturbed by the wind.
  • Wetland birds often use it as a nesting site.

Shining Willow (Salix lucida)

  • Grows between 12'-15' (shrub to small tree). May grow larger in cultivation.
  • Blooms in May.
  • Found in swamps, along shores, and in wet meadows.
  • Leaves are deep green and have a "varnished" appearance—believed by many to be one of the most beautiful of our willows.
  • Frequently used as an ornamental.

For those looking to help restore wetland or riparian habitat to its former glory willows are the perfect choice. The same goes for those simply looking to add pleasing native shrubs or trees to their property. With the diverse range of forms and statures found in this genus, there's always one that will meet even the most stringent requirements when it comes to height. Moreover, while the willows generally prefer moister conditions than most other trees, it's not necessary to have a swamp or other wetland complex on your property. As seen in the above descriptions, several species can tolerate a wide array of conditions and some are even adapted specifically for drier upland sites. Willows should be given a chance. They will most assuredly not disappoint, and may just even surprise with their modest elegance and unsurpassed vigor.