Not All Willows Weep
The graceful silhouette of the weeping willow (Salix babylonica) and its long, slender, pendulous branches make it easy to recognize even from a distance. Actually, planting this tree at some distance from your home and lawn is probably a good idea. While quite benign when growing at the water’s edge or in a damp corner of a field, when planted in the yard, its thirsty roots often seek out moisture in drainage pipes and can invade even the tiniest of cracks in sewer lines and foundations. Shallow roots compete with lawn grass for nutrients and often protrude above the soil, making mowing difficult.
Of the estimated 400 willow varieties, not all weep or need to grow in wet soil. Certain ones, like the black willow (S. nigra), grow straight and tall, reaching 100 feet or more; other willows are ground-huggers that crawl and creep. Some display uniquely colored bark and foliage.
‘Scarlet Curls’ is a willow hybrid that twists its way skyward to 30 feet. Its branches resemble giant corkscrews, and even its leaves have wavy edges. In winter, the contorted branches cast scribbly shadows on the snow, and the vivid red twigs brighten even the gloomiest of days.
The fuzzy catkins of pussy willows (Salix spp.) are a sure sign of spring and bring a smile to everybody’s face. A particularly striking variety is ‘Rubykins’ (a cultivar of S. koriyanagi), with its bright red catkins. Or try goat willow (S. caprea), the florist’s choice, with its large, 1-1⁄2-inch-long, rose-color catkins.
Willows are extremely important to wildlife. Game birds, rodents, and browsing animals dine on their bark, twigs, catkins, and buds. Being one of the first plants to flower in the spring, they are also an early source of pollen and nectar for honeybees.
From the earliest times, the pliable stems and easy-to-work wood of willows have been used for making items from baskets to fishnets. Long before its bark was known to contain salicin, the active ingredient in aspirin, Native Americans chewed on willow twigs to ease pain and tied strips of its bark around their heads to cure headaches. Before aspirin was developed, doctors may well have advised: “Take two willows and call me in the morning.”