Nature Bulletin No. 222-A March 19, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
The willow was beloved in olden times as a symbol of sorrow and
grace. In contrast, it reminds Englishmen of the willow bats used in
playing cricket, their national game. To a Hollander, it means wooden
shoes. To young Americans, however, it means pussy willows in early
spring, willow whistles and fishing poles.
Willows grow rapidly and abundantly in moist soils and along the
edges of water throughout most of the United States and in many other
parts of the world. They are a conspicuous feature of the landscape
along freshwater streams, lakes, ponds and marshes -- sometimes as
large picturesque trees with gnarled or leaning trunks and open
feathery crowns; sometimes as dense shrubby borders; or as thickets
covering many acres. Willows are plant pioneers, able to live on raw
new soil wherever there is water. Also, because their tiny silky-haired
seeds are borne long distances by wind, they were probably the first
woody plants to gain a foothold in this region when it was uncovered
by the melting of the glaciers. Dwarf willows are found on the Barren
Lands beyond the Arctic Circle.
Most willows range in height from a few inches to 20 or 30 feet.
Certain alpine species, at maturity, are not more than an inch or so in
height. In the Chicago region there are over two dozen kinds, which
are very difficult for anyone but an expert to distinguish, but only two
native kinds reach tree size: Black Willow and the Peach-leaved
Willow. The Golden Willow originated in Europe; the Weeping
Willow in China where, with its long dropping branchlets, it
frequently appears in Chinese decorative art. Both are ornamental
shade trees. The Crack Willow and the White Willow, which become
the tallest and most valuable of our willows, were also introduced from
In spite of the fact that the fast-growing fine-grained soft wood of the
willow has little value for lumber, fuel or durability, it has many other
uses. It does make a fine grade of charcoal for medical or chemical
uses -- especially gunpowder. Large quantities, 3 inches or more in
diameter, are cut to make paper pulp. The tough wood of the larger
logs is used for crates and boxes. Artificial legs are often made of it.
Further, willows grow readily from cuttings and are often planted as
windbreaks, as living fences, and to control eroding banks or gullies
with their dense mats of reddish-orange roots.
Among the many shrubby species, some have special uses. The Basket
Willow and others called Osiers are cultivated for the manufacture of
wickerware and wicker furniture. The tough bark of some kinds is
used as string or twisted into rope. The bitter inner bark is used in
tanning hides, and formerly for medicinal purposes such as for
rheumatism, for poultices, and as a substitute for quinine. The
common Sandbar Willow is woven into large mats placed on stream
banks and newly constructed earth dams and levees where they quickly
take root to form a living protection against erosion.
Willows, with their masses of water-loving roots, often do damage by
clogging tile drains and drainage ditches on f arms . In cities, as street
trees, they do similar damage to drains and sewers. The male flowers
are the "pussies" which produce the pollen. The mature female
flowers, always on separate willows, pop open to release a cloud of
cottony flying seeds. In spring, honey bees swarm about the flowers for
early pollen and nectar. Willows are a favorite winter food for rabbits,
beaver, deer, elk, moose, and also many birds which feed on their
Willow switches are sometimes used to tan boys' hides.
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Update: June 2012