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Salix alba Morton.jpg
Salix alba 'Vitellina-Tristis'
Morton Arboretum
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Eudicots
Clade: Rosids
Order: Malpighiales
Family: Salicaceae
Subfamily: Salicoideae
Tribe: Saliceae
Genus: Salix
L., nom. cons.[1]
Type species
Salix alba L.

About 400.[2]
See List of Salix species

Willows, also called sallows and osiers, from the genus Salix, are around 400 species[2] of deciduous trees and shrubs, found primarily on moist soils in cold and temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere.

Most species are known as willow, but some narrow-leaved shrub species are called osier, and some broader-leaved species are referred to as sallow (from Old English sealh, related to the Latin word salix, willow).

Some willows (particularly arctic and alpine species) are low-growing or creeping shrubs; for example, the dwarf willow (Salix herbacea) rarely exceeds 6 cm (2+12 in) in height, though it spreads widely across the ground.


At the base of the petiole a pair of stipules form. These may fall in spring, or last for much of the summer or even for more than one year (marcescence).

Willows all have abundant watery bark sap, which is heavily charged with salicylic acid, soft, usually pliant, tough wood, slender branches, and large, fibrous, often stoloniferous roots. The roots are remarkable for their toughness, size, and tenacity to live, and roots readily sprout from aerial parts of the plant.[3]


The leaves are typically elongated, but may also be round to oval, frequently with serrated edges. Most species are deciduous; semievergreen willows with coriaceous leaves are rare, e.g. Salix micans and S. australior in the eastern Mediterranean.

All the buds are lateral; no absolutely terminal bud is ever formed. The buds are covered by a single scale. Usually, the bud scale is fused into a cap-like shape, but in some species it wraps around and the edges overlap.[4]

The leaves are simple, feather-veined, and typically linear-lanceolate. Usually they are serrate, rounded at base, acute or acuminate. The leaf petioles are short, the stipules often very conspicuous, resembling tiny, round leaves, and sometimes remaining for half the summer. On some species, however, they are small, inconspicuous, and caducous (soon falling).

In color, the leaves show a great variety of greens, ranging from yellowish to bluish color.

Willows are among the earliest woody plants to leaf out in spring and the last to drop their leaves in autumn. Leafout may occur as early as February depending on the climate and is stimulated by air temperature. If daytime highs reach 10 °C (50 °F) for a few consecutive days, a willow will attempt to put out leaves and flowers.

Leaf drop in autumn occurs when day length shortens to approximately ten hours and 25 minutes, which varies by latitude (as early as the first week of October for boreal species such as S. alaxensis and as late as the third week of December for willows growing in far southern areas).


Young male catkin

With the exception of Salix martiana,[5] willows are dioecious, with male and female flowers appearing as catkins on separate plants; the catkins are produced early in the spring, often before the leaves.

The staminate (male) flowers are without either calyx with corolla; they consist simply of stamens, varying in number from two to 10, accompanied by a nectariferous gland and inserted on the base of a scale which is itself borne on the rachis of a drooping raceme called a catkin, or ament. This scale is square, entire, and very hairy. The anthers are rose-colored in the bud, but orange or purple after the flower opens; they are two-celled and the cells open latitudinally. The filaments are threadlike, usually pale brown, and often bald.

The pistillate (female) flowers are also without calyx or corolla, and consist of a single ovary accompanied by a small, flat nectar gland and inserted on the base of a scale which is likewise borne on the rachis of a catkin. The ovary is one-celled, the style two-lobed, and the ovules numerous.


The scientific use of the genus name Salix originates with Carl Linnaeus in 1753.[1] The modern concept of types did not exist at the time, so types for Linnaeus' genera had to be designated later.[6] The type species, i.e. the species on which the genus name is based, is Salix alba, based on a conserved type.[1]

The generic name Salix comes from Latin and was already used by the Romans for various types of willow.[7] A theory is that the word is ultimately derived from a Celtic language, sal meaning 'near' and lis meaning 'water', alluding to their habitat.[8]

Selected species

The genus Salix is made up of around 400 species of deciduous trees and shrubs. Examples include:[2]


Knotted willow and woodpile in the Bourgoyen-Ossemeersen, Ghent, Belgium
Berlin Britzer Garten pollarded willow tree in the spring of March 2018

Willows are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species, such as the mourning cloak butterfly.[9] Ants, such as wood ants, are common on willows inhabited by aphids, coming to collect aphid honeydew, as sometimes do wasps.

Pests and diseases

Willow species are hosts to more than a hundred aphid species, belonging to Chaitophorus and other genera,[10] forming large colonies to feed on plant juices, on the underside of leaves in particular.[11] Corythucha elegans, the willow lace bug, is a bug species in the family Tingidae found on willows in North America. Rhabdophaga rosaria is a type of gall found on willows.

Rust, caused by fungi of genus Melampsora, is known to damage leaves of willows, covering them with orange spots.[12]


A small number of willow species were widely planted in Australia, notably as erosion-control measures along watercourses. They are now regarded as invasive weeds which occupy extensive areas across southern Australia and are considered 'Weeds of National Significance'. Many catchment management authorities are removing and replacing them with native trees.[13][14]



Almost all willows take root very readily from cuttings or where broken branches lie on the ground. The few exceptions include the goat willow (Salix caprea) and peachleaf willow (Salix amygdaloides). One famous example of such growth from cuttings involves the poet Alexander Pope, who begged a twig from a parcel tied with twigs sent from Spain to Lady Suffolk. This twig was planted and thrived, and legend has it that all of England's weeping willows are descended from this first one.[15][16]

Willows are extensively cultivated around the world.[17] They are used in hedges and landscaping.

Hybrids and cultivars

Weeping willow, an example of a hybrid between two types of willow

Willows are very cross-compatible, and numerous hybrids occur, both naturally and in cultivation. A well-known ornamental example is the weeping willow (Salix × sepulcralis), which is a hybrid of Peking willow (Salix babylonica) from China and white willow (Salix alba) from Europe. The widely planted Chinese willow Salix matsudana is now considered a synonym of S. babylonica.

Numerous cultivars of Salix L. have been developed and named over the centuries. New selections of cultivars with superior technical and ornamental characteristics have been chosen deliberately and applied to various purposes. Many cultivars and unmodified species of Salix have gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.[18] Most recently, Salix has become an important source for bioenergy production and for various ecosystem services.

The first edition of the Checklist for Cultivars of Salix L. (willow) was compiled in 2015, which includes 854 cultivar epithets with accompanying information.

The International Poplar Commission of the FAO UN holds the International Cultivar Registration Authority (ICRAs) for the genus Salix (willows). The ICRA for Salix produces and maintains The International Register of Cultivars of Salix L. (willow).


The leaves and bark of the willow tree have been mentioned in ancient texts from Assyria, Sumer and Egypt[] as a remedy for aches and fever,[19] and in Ancient Greece the physician Hippocrates wrote about its medicinal properties in the fifth century BC.[]

Native Americans across the Americas relied on it as a staple of their medical treatments. It provides temporary pain relief.

The active extract of the bark, called salicin, is metabolized into salicylic acid in the human body, and is a precursor of aspirin.[20] In 1763, its medicinal properties were observed by the Reverend Edward Stone in England. He notified the Royal Society, which published his findings.

Salicin was isolated to its crystalline form in 1828 by Henri Leroux, a French pharmacist, and Raffaele Piria, an Italian chemist, who then succeeded in separating out the compound in its pure state.

In 1897, Felix Hoffmann created a synthetically altered version of salicin (in his case derived from the Spiraea plant), which caused less digestive upset than pure salicylic acid. The new drug, formally acetylsalicylic acid, was named Aspirin by Hoffmann's employer Bayer AG. This gave rise to the hugely important class of drugs known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).


Some of humans' earliest manufactured items may have been made from willow. A fishing net made from willow dates back to 8300 BC.[21]

Basic crafts, such as baskets, fish traps, wattle fences and wattle and daub house walls, were often woven from osiers or withies (rod-like willow shoots, often grown in pollards). One of the forms of Welsh coracle boat traditionally uses willow in the framework.

Thin or split willow rods can be woven into wicker, which also has a long history. The relatively pliable willow is less likely to split while being woven than many other woods, and can be bent around sharp corners in basketry.

Willow wood is also used in the manufacture of boxes, brooms, cricket bats, cradle boards, chairmans and other furniture, dolls, willow flutes, poles, sweat lodges, toys, turnery, tool handles, wood veneer, wands and whistles. In addition, tannin, fibre, paper, rope and string can be produced from the wood.

Willow is also used in the manufacture of double basses for backs, sides and linings, and in making splines and blocks for bass repair.


Willow roots spread widely and are very aggressive in seeking out moisture; for this reason, they can become problematic when planted in residential areas, where the roots are notorious for clogging French drains, drainage systems, weeping tiles, septic systems, storm drains, and sewer systems, particularly older, tile, concrete, or ceramic pipes. Newer, PVC sewer pipes are much less leaky at the joints, and are therefore less susceptible to problems from willow roots; the same is true of water supply piping.[22][23]


Male catkin of Salix cinerea with bee
Willow tree in spring, England
Willow tree with woodbine honeysuckle
Art installation "Sandworm" in the Wenduine Dunes, Belgium, made entirely out of willow
  • Art: Willow is used to make charcoal (for drawing) as well as living sculptures, woven from live willow rods into shapes such as domes and tunnels. Willow stems are used to weave baskets and three-dimensional sculptures of animals and other figures. Willow stems are also used to create garden features, such as decorative panels and obelisks.
  • Energy: There have been experiments or mathematical models in using willows for biomass or biofuel, in energy forestry systems, due to its fast growth.[24][25] Programs in other countries are being developed through initiatives such as the Willow Biomass Project in the US, and the Energy Coppice Project in the UK.[26] Willow may also be grown to produce charcoal.
  • Environment: There has been research into possibly using willows for future biofiltration of wastewater (i.e. phytoremediation and land reclamation), although this is not commercially viable.[27][28][29][30] They are used for streambank stabilisation (bioengineering), slope stabilisation, soil erosion control, shelterbelt and windbreak, and wildlife habitat. Willows are often planted on the borders of streams so their interlacing roots may protect the bank against the action of the water. The roots are often larger than the stem which grows from them.
  • Food: Willows produce a modest amount of nectar from which bees can make honey, and are especially valued as a source of early pollen for bees. Poor people at one time often ate willow catkins that had been cooked to form a mash.[31] The inner bark can be eaten raw or cooked, as can the young leaves and underground shoots.[32]


The willow is one of the four species associated with the Jewish festival of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, cited in Leviticus 23:40. Willow branches are also used during the synagogue service on Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles.

In Buddhism, a willow branch is one of the chief attributes of Kwan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion.

Christian churches in northwestern Europe and Ukraine and Bulgaria often used willow branches in place of palms in the ceremonies on Palm Sunday.[33]

In China, some people carry willow branches with them on the day of their Tomb Sweeping or Qingming Festival. Willow branches are also put up on gates and/or front doors, which they believe help ward off the evil spirits that wander on Qingming. Legend states that on Qingming Festival, the ruler of the underworld allows the spirits of the dead to return to earth. Since their presence may not always be welcome, willow branches keep them away.[34] In traditional pictures of the Goddess of Mercy Guanyin, she is often shown seated on a rock with a willow branch in a vase of water at her side. The Goddess employs this mysterious water and the branch for putting demons to flight. Taoist witches also use a small carving made from willow wood for communicating with the spirits of the dead. The image is sent to the nether world, where the disembodied spirit is deemed to enter it, and give the desired information to surviving relatives on its return.[35] The willow is a famous subject in many East Asian nations' cultures, particularly in pen and ink paintings from China and Japan.

A gisaeng (Korean geisha) named Hongrang, who lived in the middle of the Joseon Dynasty, wrote the poem "By the willow in the rain in the evening", which she gave to her parting lover (Choi Gyeong-chang).[36] Hongrang wrote:

"... I will be the willow on your bedside."

In Japanese tradition, the willow is associated with ghosts. It is popularly supposed that a ghost will appear where a willow grows. Willow trees are also quite prevalent in folklore and myths.[37][38]

In English folklore, a willow tree is believed to be quite sinister, capable of uprooting itself and stalking travellers.[] The Viminal Hill, one of the Seven Hills of Rome, derives its name from the Latin word for osier, viminia (pl.).

Hans Christian Andersen wrote a story called "Under the Willow Tree" (1853) in which children ask questions of a tree they call "willow-father", paired with another entity called "elder-mother".[39]

"Green Willow" is a Japanese ghost story in which a young samurai falls in love with a woman called Green Willow who has a close spiritual connection with a willow tree.[40] "The Willow Wife" is another, not dissimilar tale.[41] "Wisdom of the Willow Tree" is an Osage Nation story in which a young man seeks answers from a willow tree, addressing the tree in conversation as 'Grandfather'.[42]

See also

The recent name changes for well-known and economically important willows (Salix L.)[1]


  1. ^ a b c "Salix L". The International Plant Names Index. Retrieved 2021.
  2. ^ a b c Mabberley, D.J. 1997. The Plant Book, Cambridge University Press #2: Cambridge.
  3. ^ Dickmann, D. I.; Kuzovkina, J. (2014), "Poplars and willows of the world, with emphasis on silviculturally important species", Poplars and willows: Trees for society and the environment, CABI, pp. 8-91, doi:10.1079/9781780641089.0008, ISBN 9781780641089
  4. ^ George W. Argus (1986). "The Genus Salix (Salicaceae) in the Southeastern United States". Systematic Botany Monographs : Monographic Series of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists. Systematic Botany Monographs. American Society of Plant Taxonomists. 9: 1-170. doi:10.2307/25027618. ISSN 0737-8211. JSTOR 25027618.
  5. ^ Rohwer, Jens; Kubitzki, Klaus (1984). "Salix martiana, a regularly hermaphrodite willow". Plant Systematics and Evolution. 144 (2): 99-101. doi:10.1007/BF00986668. S2CID 35590381.
  6. ^ "Introduction and Historical Perspective". The Linnaean Plant Name Typification Project. The Natural History Museum. Retrieved 2021.
  7. ^ Helmut Genaust: Etymologisches Wörterbuch der botanischen Pflanzennamen (German). 3rd ed., completely revised and expanded. Nikol, Hamburg 2005, ISBN 3-937872-16-7 (reprint from 1996). pg. 552
  8. ^ Nazarov, M. I. (1970) [1936]. Komarov, Vladimir Leontyevich (ed.). Flora of the U.S.S.R. 5. Translated by Landau, N. Jerusalem: Israel Program for Scientific Translations. p. 21.
  9. ^ "Mourning Cloak". Study of Northern Virginia Ecology. Fairfax County Public Schools.
  10. ^ Blackman, R. L.; Eastop, V. F. (1994). Aphids on the World's Trees. CABI. ISBN 9780851988771.[permanent dead link]
  11. ^ David V. Alford (2012). Pests of Ornamental Trees, Shrubs and Flowers. p. 78. ISBN 9781840761627.
  12. ^ Kenaley, Shawn C.; et al. (2010). "Leaf Rust" (PDF).
  13. ^ Albury/Wodonga Willow Management Working Group (December 1998). "Willows along watercourses: managing, removing and replacing". Department of Primary Industries, State Government of Victoria.
  14. ^ Cremer, Kurt W. (2003). "Introduced willows can become invasive pests in Australia" (PDF).
  15. ^ Leland, John (2005). Aliens in the Backyard: Plant and Animal Imports Into America. University of South Carolina Press. p. 70. ISBN 978-1-57003-582-1.
  16. ^ Laird, Mark (1999). The Flowering of the Landscape Garden: English Pleasure Grounds, 1720-1800. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 403. ISBN 978-0-8122-3457-2.
  17. ^ Kuzovkina, Yulia A.; Weih, Martin; Romero, Marta Abalos; Charles, John; Hust, Sarah; McIvor, Ian; Karp, Angelas; Trybush, Sviatlana; Labrecque, Michel (15 April 2008), "Salix: Botany and Global Horticulture", Horticultural Reviews, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., pp. 447-489, doi:10.1002/9780470380147.ch8, ISBN 9780470380147
  18. ^ "AGM Plants March 2020 © RHS - ORNAMENTAL" (PDF). rhs.org. The Royal Horticultural Society. March 2020. Retrieved 2020.
  19. ^ "An aspirin a day keeps the doctor at bay: The world's first blockbuster drug is a hundred years old this week". Retrieved 2007.
  20. ^ W. Hale White. "Materia Medica Pharmacy, Pharmacology and Therapeutics". Retrieved 2011.
  21. ^ The palaeoenvironment of the Antrea Net Find The Department of Geography, University of Helsinki
  22. ^ Salix spp. UFL/edu, Weeping Willow Fact Sheet ST-576, Edward F. Gilman and Dennis G. Watson, United States Forest Service
  23. ^ "Rooting Around: Tree Roots Archived 19 April 2012 at the Wayback Machine", Dave Hanson, Yard & Garden Line News Volume 5 Number 15, University of Minnesota Extension, 1 October 2003
  24. ^ Aylott, Matthew J.; Casella, E; Tubby, I; Street, NR; Smith, P; Taylor, G (2008). "Yield and spatial supply of bioenergy poplar and willow short-rotation coppice in the UK". New Phytologist. 178 (2): 358-370. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8137.2008.02396.x. PMID 18331429. Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 January 2013. Retrieved 2008.
  25. ^ Mola-Yudego, Blas; Aronsson, Pär. (2008). "Yield models for commercial willow biomass plantations in Sweden". Biomass and Bioenergy. 32 (9): 829-837. doi:10.1016/j.biombioe.2008.01.002.
  26. ^ "Forestresearch.gov.uk". Forestresearch.gov.uk. Archived from the original on 8 March 2009. Retrieved 2011.
  27. ^ Guidi Nissim W., Jerbi A., Lafleur B., Fluet R., Labrecque M. (2015) "Willows for the treatment of municipal wastewater: long-term performance under different irrigation rates". Ecological Engineering 81: 395-404. doi:10.1016/j.ecoleng.2015.04.067.
  28. ^ Guidi Nissim W., Voicu A., Labrecque M. (2014) "Willow short-rotation coppice for treatment of polluted groundwater". Ecological Engineering, 62:102-114 doi:10.1016/j.ecoleng.2013.10.005.
  29. ^ Guidi W., Kadri H., Labrecque L. (2012) "Establishment techniques to using willow for phytoremediation on a former oil refinery in southern-Quebec: achievements and constraints". Chemistry and Ecology, 28(1):49-64. doi:10.1080/02757540.2011.627857
  30. ^ Guidi Nissim W., Palm E., Mancuso S., Azzarello E. (2018) "Trace element phytoextraction from contaminated soil: a case study under Mediterranean climate". Environmental Science and Pollution Research, accepted doi:10.1007/s11356-018-1197-x
  31. ^ Hageneder, Fred (2001). The Heritage of Trees. Edinburgh : Floris. ISBN 0-86315-359-3. p.172
  32. ^ Angier, Bradford (1974). Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books. p. 248. ISBN 0-8117-0616-8. OCLC 799792.
  33. ^ "ChurchYear.net". ChurchYear.net. Retrieved 2011.
  34. ^ Doolittle, Justus (2002) [1876]. Social Life of the Chinese. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-7103-0753-8.
  35. ^ Doré S.J., Henry; Kennelly, S.J. (Translator), M. (1914). Researches into Chinese Superstitions. Tusewei Press, Shanghai. Vol I p. 2
  36. ^ "The Forest of Willows in Our Minds". Arirang TV. 20 August 2007. Retrieved 2007.
  37. ^ "In Worship of Trees by George Knowles: Willow". Archived from the original on 10 February 2008. Retrieved 2008.
  38. ^ "Mythology and Folklore of the Willow". Archived from the original on 15 February 2008. Retrieved 2008.
  39. ^ "Under The Willow Tree". Hca.gilead.org.il. 13 December 2007. Retrieved 2011.
  40. ^ "Green Willow". Spiritoftrees.org. Retrieved 2011.
  41. ^ The Willow Wife Archived 18 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  42. ^ "Wisdom of the Willow Tree". Tweedsblues.net. Archived from the original on 29 September 2011. Retrieved 2011.


External links

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