willow leaves

Common name: Willow, Osier, Sallow

About Willows

There are about 350 species of willow, all members of the genus Salix. They are native to the northern hemisphere, and usually are found growing on moist soil in cool regions.


The willow has traditionally been associated with both fertility and death. Infertile women in classical Athens were advised to place willow branches in their beds, and most of the Biblical allusions to willow are associated with fertility.

Funeral torches in ancient Rome were made of willow wood. One traditions says that Babylonian soothsayers foretold the premature death of Alexander the Great after seeing a willow bough brush the crown from his head as he crossed the Euphrates. In the middle ages and after, it was a common custom to put a willow branch in each coffin and to plant a willow tree near graves.


Willow trees and shrubs vary widely in size, from the Dwarf Willow (Salix herbacea) which grows about three inches high, to the White Willow (Salix alba) which can be 100 feet tall. These are deciduous plants, and the leaves are typically long and narrow, with small serrations on the edges and a lighter underside. The flowers are catkins, which appear in early spring, often before the leaves open. Male and female catkins do not appear on the same plant. Willows cross-fertilize readily, and hybrids occur naturally as well as in cultivation. The tiny seeds are embedded in white down, so they can be scattered by the wind. The seed remains viable for two to six weeks, depending on the species.

Scientific Classification


Kingdom - Plantae
Division - Magnoliophyta
Class - Magnoliopsida
Order - Malpighiales
Family - Salicaceae
Genus - Salix


Willows grow so easily in moist soil that some species are considered invasive. Australia has an eradication program for several kinds of willows, which are classified as "Weeds of National Significance".Willows have extensive root systems, and they love moisture. Never plant a willow near your water supply or drainage pipes!

Willows are easily propagated from cuttings. In fact, most species will root from broken branches left on the ground.


The Pussy Willow shrub and the Weeping Willow tree are the most common ornamental willows, but the plant has many other uses.


Willow has been used medicinally for millennia. In North America, native peoples relied on it to relieve fever and pain. The bark of the willow tree is mentioned in Egyptian, Sumerian, and Assyrian texts as a remedy for aches and fever. The Greek physician Hippocrates recommended the bark and leaves of the willow tree to relieve pain and fever in the fifth century B.C.E. Willow tea has been a folk remedy for chills and fever as recently as the twentieth century.

Willow relieves pain because it contains salicin, which was isolated in 1828. In 1897, Felix Hoffmann created a synthetically altered version of salicin, which his employer, Bayer, named aspirin.


Perhaps the most important traditional use of willows was in basket-making. Salmon and eel traps were woven from willow in the Mesolithic period and were still used in the British Isles in the twentieth century. Salix viminalis and Salix purpurea have both been called Basket Willow because their shoots and twigs are exceptionally strong and pliable. Willow is still a favored material for woven baskets. Willow was also used to make wattle fences and daub-and-wattle buildings. Artists now use willows to create living sculptures, employing similar techniques.A cultivar of the White Willow, Salix alba 'Caerulea', is commercially grown in England to be made into cricket bats.

Willow has been used in charcoal-making for centuries. Today, the best artist's charcoal is made from willow wood. Willow has also been used for making paper pulp.

Willow was used for the framework of coracles, one of the earliest kinds of boats. Herodotus, writing in the fifth century B.C.E., described how the Britons "cut frames of willow then stretch hide over them for a cover - the boat is round like a shield."

new developments

Many of the traditional uses of willow are still valid, but they also have great importance for eco-friendly living. Willows provide a more ecologically sound method of erosion control than concrete. New adaptations of traditional methods suck as spiling, in which willow cuttings are rooted and woven into a living fence on the riverbank, provide highly effective erosion control at a low cost, using a renewable and biodegradable material.

Willow biomass is an environmentally sound source of energy. Because it grows so quickly and can be cropped so frequently, it is a good source of heating fuel. It can be used to produce electricity, especially when co-fired with coal.

Willows can also be used to produce biodegradable plastics and other polymers.

As scientists research the natural functions of wetlands, willows are increasingly being used in biofiltration systems to purify water.

from the Victorian Gardener

Willow (Salix) - Large and medium sized trees, shrubs, and even alpine trailers of northern and temperate countries, mostly hardy and of singular beauty and interest for our gardens and home grounds, in which they are much neglected. Notwithstanding the number of trees in the country, I doubt if there is a more picturesque one than the Babylonian Willow, which is not common in many districts about London, although it is by the river and in the eastern counties. There are many, however, who plant this who do not care for handsome Willows of erect habit, but, as we think, more beauty of color, such as the scarlet-barked or Cardinal Willow, and even the old yellow Willow. Of late years a number of other Weeping Willows have been propagated in Germany and elsewhere, so that we are no longer confined to the old Weeping Willow, which was apt to be cut down occasionally in hard winters. When the gardener plants a Willow, it is generally some curious one with a mop head, like the "American" Weeping Willow. Country gentlemen should therefore take the Tree Willows under their own care, and plant them in bold groups and colonies here and there, by water or in wet or marshy places. A marshy place planted with underwood formed of the yellow or red Willow would be charmingly picturesque in winter-indeed, at all times-and there is no difficulty in getting any of these Willows by the hundred or thousand. In places which are much haunted by the rabbit, young Willows of these kinds go very rapidly, and, planted by streams in meadows where there are cattle, they are nibbled down, so that in certain districts a little care may be wanted to protect them. None of the Willows here mentioned should be ever grafted. I have skeleton Willows alongside some ponds, the sad remains of grafted Willows which were interesting and little-known kinds, all grafted on the common Sallow (Salix caprea). The grafted portion gradually died; the stump on which they are grafted remained sound, and from it have come the vigorous shoots of many Withies. Inasmuch as the whole country and the woods near have many of the same tree, which seeds everywhere, this unsought plantation of a common tree by garden ponds is far from a gain. "As easy to strike as a Willow," is a proverb among gardeners, and there is no good reason for grafting these plants. The graceful Willow, called in our gardens the American Willow, is invariably grafted on the Sallow, and if not watched and the suckers removed, will quickly perish; but if a shoot of this plant be hanging into water it quickly roots, showing how easily the trees could be increased if nurserymen would take the trouble to do it in the right way. The objection to the grafting is, first of all, the frequent death of the tree; secondly, falsified and weak growth, and where it does not die, endless trouble; thirdly, we lose some of the true uses of the tree, the habit not lending itself always to grafting on the standard form. Why should we not be able to use the Weeping Willows as rock or bank plants, not on standards, in which form the growth is often less graceful than on our own root trees? Though we think the finest Willows for effect in the landscape are the Tree Willows, in all garden ground the Weeping Willows are likely to be the most planted, and we should guard against an excessive use of them in home landscape owing to this same weeping habit. One large isolated Weeping Willow, or a group of such trees on the margin of water, gives a much better effect than a number dotted about. Further, the Weeping Willow ungrafted when isolated has an advantage over many other weeping trees in its beauty of habit; all is grace and softness, like a fountain of water, the branches rise lightly into the air to fall again gracefully. On the other hand, in most other weeping trees artificially made by grafting on standards there is none of this lightness of aspect and of form. Willows are admirably suited for giving us an abundance of shade where this is desired, and they are among the hardy trees that thrive in and near towns. Only the Willows most effective in the home landscape and in the home woods are named here. Some small and alpine Willows are interesting for the rock garden, but they are more suited for botanical collections. The dwarf creeping kinds grown in gardens are-S. herbaceae, S. lanata, S. reticulata, and S. serpyllifolia, all natives of the northern parts of Europe and America. They grow well among stones in ordinary garden soil. Sometimes certain of these dwarf forms are grafted, generally on the Sallow, on which their lives are very short, and it is impossible for us to judge of the value of such kinds as S. repens var. argentea and pendula and S. caesia var. Zabeli pendula, when stuck on the ends of sticks of a wholly different nature.

Related Plants

White W.

White W. (Salix Alba) - A graceful and stately tree of the marsh lands and river valleys throughout Europe and Asia, common in Britain, and often beautiful. It has several varieties, particularly a silvery one, and a red one (britzensis). Sometimes 80 feet or more high, with a trunk diameter of 6 to 7 feet.

Withy, Sallow, Goat W.

Withy, Sallow, Goat W. (Salix Caprea) - The commonest Willow, often a round-headed low tree, in our woodlands, and the one which bears the pretty catkins early in spring, and gathered at Easter, called Palm branches. It is used in nurseries throughout Europe as a stock to secure the greatest growth of various Willows, and usually with a fatal result to the life of each kind grafted on it. The Kilmarnock Willow is a weeping variety of this Willow.

Salix Elegantissima

Salix Elegantissima - A rapid-growing and handsome weeping tree. Willows have a curious way of crossing and intercrossing, hybridising themselves in all sorts of ways, and it is difficult to account for the origin of this; but from a garden point of view this is not of so much consequence. It is tall, with long and pendent branches, a yellowish-green, often stained with russet, with a more spreading habit and a larger crown than S. babylonica.

Crack W.; Withy

Crack W.; Withy (Salix Fragilis) - A fine and often picturesque tree of our river valleys, and a native of N. Europe and W. Asia, including in it a variety of forms, among the best being the Basford Willow and the broad-leaved form, latifolia. S. Russelliana, the Bedford Willow, is considered a hybrid between this and the White Willow. There is also an orange-twigged form of the Crack Willow (S. decipiens).

Bay-leaved W.

Bay-leaved W. (Salix Pentandra) - A glossy leaved distinct looking Willow, sometimes almost a tree; a native of Britain, mostly towards the north or west, and the latest flowering Willow.

Purple or Bitter Osier

Purple or Bitter Osier (Salix Purpurea) - A British Willow of some grace of habit, though not quite a tree, and most interesting from being the origin of the Willow called American by mistake. It is really a variety of this species, and a very beautiful weeping bush, which, however, is often lost by being grafted on the common Withy, which soon kills the tree. This Willow and its varieties and hybrids are much grown in Osier beds for basket-making, though not so much as the Osier. The pendulous form of the Purple Weeping Willow, commonly called the American Weeping Willow, is not very high, but has pretty grey slender leaves, with long flexible twigs. It is usually grafted and grown as a single, umbrella-headed tree although it is much prettier grouped or massed beside the water, and it is only then that one gets its extreme grace. This Willow is grafted on the common Sallow-a usually coarse-growing Willow of which the shoots spring from below the graft. If let alone for a year or two they would soon make an end of the Purple Willow, but by continually removing them one may keep the tree alive.

Greybush W.

Greybush W. (Salix Rosmarinifolia) - A graceful bushy Willow of a nice grey color, especially for groups near water or in moist ground; hardy and of easy culture. Europe.


Osier (Salix Viminalis) - A distinct and native Willow, frequent in wet places in woods and Osier beds, rarely planted in gardens, the leaves and branches are very fine in form. It is the Willow most used for basket-making.

Golden W.

Golden W. (Salix Vitellina) - Sometimes classed with the White Willow by botanists, but from a planters point of view it is a distinct tree, never so large as the White Willow, but effective in the color of its yellow branches and twigs in the winter sun. While old trees of this often become good in form and occasionally pendulous, there is of recent years a distinctly pendulous variety, S. pendula, which is very graceful and precious indeed, and quite hardy, which should never be grafted. Some of the red twigged Willows, such as that called the Cardinal Willow, belong to S. vitellina. The twigs are used to a great extent for packing in nurseries and tying fruit trees in gardens.

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