Common Name: Willows, Sallows, Osiers
Scientific Name: Salix species
Family: Salicaceae (the Willow family)
Selected Species (there are over 400 species!):
- White Willow (Salix alba)
- Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica)
- Beaked Willow (Salix bebbiana)
- Goat Willow (Salix caprea)
- Coastal Plain or Carolina Willow (Salix caroliniana)
- American or Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)
- Gray Willow (Salix glauca)
- Western Black or Goodding’s Willow (Salix gooddingii)
- Pacific Willow (Salix lucida)
- Yellow Willow (Salix lutea)
- Chinese Willow (includes Corkscrew Willow) (Salix matsudana)
- Black Willow (Salix nigra)
- Laurel or Bay Willow (Salix pentandra)
- Purple Osier or Purple Willow (Salix purpurea)
- Common Osier or Basket Willow (Salix viminalis)
There are over 400 species in the Salix genus that are commonly known as Willow or Osier. These are beautiful shrubs and trees that can be used to make baskets, crafts, fences, houses, tools, paper, string, charcoal, and medicine. It can be used to bioremediate soil and wetlands, control erosion, block the wind, and Willows can be coppiced over and over again. Willows are some of the most beneficial plants that can be used in Forest Gardening and Permaculture designs.
The Willows are native to temperate and cold climates around the northern hemisphere and have been used for thousands of years for medicine, crafts, and building materials. Willows have been introduced all over the world and continues to be important plants.
- Willow has been used for treating fever and pain from at least 2,000 BC as referenced on Egyptian paparyi. Likely it was used far earlier than that. Hippocrates referenced it in 400 BC. It was not until 1897 that Bayer first started producing Aspirin based on an extraction technique developed by the French chemist Charles Gerhardt.
- There are a number of dwarf or creeping Willows species found around the world. Many of these plants are very low growing and capable of living in very cold climates… including artctic!
- Cricket bats are traditionally made from a special variety of White Willow (Salix alba) called ‘Caerulea’.
- Willow Water – There has been a lot written on using Willow stems/twigs to help root cuttings from other plants. There is some truth to this, but it is not a magic bullet. The reason for this is that Willow contains both salicylic acid and auxins. Salycylic acid reportedly prevents pathogen growth – meaning it will stop fungus and other microorganisms from attacking the cutting. Auxins are a family of plant hormones that stimualte root growth. The research shows that the most success is seen when using 50-100 six-inch new Willow stems or new Willow shoots and soaking them in 1 gallon (3.75 liters) of water for 4-6 weeks. The water is strained and used to soak cuttings from other plants to induce/speed rooting. Cuttings of other plants are placed in a container with the Willow water (like flowers in a vase).
- Branches – Willow branches can be woven for baskets, wicker, wattle, etc.
- Wood – Willow wood can be used for boxes, brooms, furniture, crafts, tools, etc.
- Fiber – a fiber from the wood can be used to make paper, string, rope, etc.
- Ornamental Plant – many species (and varieties) are used around the world as ornamental plants
- General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
- Coppice Plant – Willows can be coppiced often (as frequently as every 2-5 years). The frequency of coppicing will depend on the size of branch desired and the speed of growth.
- Charcoal Plant – Willow is used for cooking and art charcoal
- Erosion Control Species – the extensive root system helps stabilize soils prone to erosion
- Pioneer Plant – helps reestablish overused or damaged land
- Windbreak Species – this plant can be used to block, or break the path, of wind. Martin Crawford recommends using Willow as a windbreak on the eastern side of the property, because it leafs out early in the Spring and loses leaves early in Autumn.
- Hedgerow Species
- Bioremediation/Phytoremediation Plant – Willow is used as part of biological filtration systems to clean and purify contaminated water, often as part of a constructed wetland. This can be part of a home gray water system as well.
- Biomass Plant – very fast growing plant can produce large amounts of organic matter in a short time. This has been used on a commercial level for energy production in Sweden and the U.K.
- Wildlife Shelter – mainly birds and small mammals
- Medicinal Plant – Willow has a long history of of medicinal uses, and is the origin of one of the first “modern” medicines, Aspirin
- Food Plant – the inner bark can be dried, ground into a powder, and mixed with other flours. It is reportedly bitter with a poor flavor and is considered a famine food… but it is food. Young shoots can also be eaten… also a famine food.
Harvesting: Willow branches are typically harvested when the plant is dormant and the leaves have fallen.
- White Willow (Salix alba): Zone 2-9
- Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica): Zone 5-9
- Beaked Willow (Salix bebbiana): Zone 3
- Goat Willow (Salix caprea): Zone 5-9
- Coastal Plain or Carolina Willow (Salix caroliniana): Zone 7
- American or Pussy Willow (Salix discolor): Zone 4-8
- Gray Willow (Salix glauca): Zone – Cool to cold climates
- Western Black or Goodding’s Willow (Salix gooddingii): Zone 7
- Pacific Willow (Salix lucida): Zone 2
- Chinese Willow (includes Corkscrew Willow) (Salix matsudana): Zone 4-9
- Black Willow (Salix nigra): Zone 4
- Laurel or Bay Willow (Salix pentandra): Zone 5
- Purple Osier or Purple Willow (Salix purpurea): Zone 4-7
- Common Osier or Basket Willow (Salix viminalis): Zone 4
- White Willow (Salix alba): Zone 9-1
- Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica): Zone 9-1
- Goat Willow (Salix caprea): Zone 9-5
- American or Pussy Willow (Salix discolor): Zone 8-2
- Black Willow (Salix nigra): Zone 9-4 (maybe colder)
- Purple Osier or Purple Willow (Salix purpurea): Zone 7-1
Chill Requirement: Likely considering where this plant originates, but as this is not really a food plant, so this is not that important for us… and yes, I know that this can be a famine food.
Plant Type: Small Shrub to Large Tree
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Layer, Sub-Canopy Layer, Shrub Layer, Aquatic/Wetland Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: There are a large number of species and varieties available.
Pollination: Dioecious (there are male and female plants). Pollinated primarily by bees.
Flowering: April-May (as early as January in some climates!)
- Years of Useful Life: 40-75 years on average. Coppicing will greatly increase the life span. If you have a large planting of Willow, an individual tree’s life span is not that important, because it easily sends up suckers.
- White Willow (Salix alba): 82-100 feet (25-30 meters) tall and 32 feet (10 meters) wide
- Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica): 39 feet (12 meters) tall and wide
- Beaked Willow (Salix bebbiana): 23 feet (7 meters) tall
- Goat Willow (Salix caprea): 32 feet (10 meters) tall and 26 feet (8 meters) wide
- Coastal Plain or Carolina Willow (Salix caroliniana): 32 feet (10 meters) tall
- American or Pussy Willow (Salix discolor): 20 feet (6 meters) tall and 15 feet (4 meters) wide
- Gray Willow (Salix glauca): 4-20 feet (1.2-6 meters) tall
- Western Black or Goodding’s Willow (Salix gooddingii): 32 feet (10 meters) tall
- Pacific Willow (Salix lucida): 26 feet (8 meters) tall
- Yellow Willow (Salix lutea): 82 feet (25 meters) tall and 32 feet (10 meters) wide
- Chinese Willow (includes Corkscrew Willow) (Salix matsudana): 60 feet (18 meters) tall
- Black Willow (Salix nigra): 39 feet (12 meters) tall
- Laurel or Bay Willow (Salix pentandra): 32 feet (10 meters) tall
- Purple Osier or Purple Willow (Salix purpurea): 16 feet (5 meters) tall and wide
- Common Osier or Basket Willow (Salix viminalis): 19 feet (6 meters) tall and 13 feet (4 meters) wide
Roots: Fibrous, extensive on the surface and running deep. Readily sends up suckers. UPDATE: While I have found a few sources that state Willow roots run deep, this information is in conflict with the “in the field” experience of reputable Permaculturists (like Geoff Lawton) who routinely recommend Willow and Bamboo for planting on dam/pond walls due to these plants having fibrous, stabilizing root systems that do NOT run deep. As you can see in the comments below, I think I will side with Geoff Lawton’s opinion on this.
Growth Rate: Fast
Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates moderate shade
Moisture: Moist to very wet soils. Can tolerate intermitent standing water (flooding) and wetland areas.
pH: 4-7 (tolerates a wide range of soil conditions, but does not really like alkaline soils)
Special Considerations for Growing:
- Willow is fast growing and relatively short-lived.
- It is recommended to avoid planting Willow too close to a building as the roots may spread and disturb the foundation.
- Most species have relatively weak wood that is can break in strong winds, although because it is fast growing and forms a lot of branches and leaves quickly, it is still a good windbreak plant.
Most easily grown from cuttings taken at anytime of the year – just stick it in the ground! Very easy. Willow can also be propagated from seed. Willow seed has a short viability life.
Cutting back suckers to prevent spread is occasionally needed. Browsing animals (deer, goats, etc.) will eat these suckers if allowed.
- Some people consider Willow invasive due to the suckers it puts up and the ease of producing a new tree from just a single twig that has been buried. This is also what makes it so good for site rehabilitation as a pioneer species.
- The extensive root system can undermine foundations or underground lines/pipes, so only plant Willow in places that this is not going to be a problem.