Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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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 Europe.

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 buds.

Willow switches are sometimes used to tan boys' hides.

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