Willows are hardy little trees and shrubs of cold and temperate regions that thrive in moist to very wet soils.
Willows are part of the Salix genus in the Salicaceae or Willow Family, with about 450 currently accepted species native around the world in both the northern and southern hemispheres.
Willows are a relatively young genus, having evolved about 30 – 60 million years ago.
They are fast-growing trees that make great hedges, shade trees, or for use in wetlands, ecological restoration, and erosion control, giving great options to those who live in cold to temperate climates.
Desert Willows are a completely unrelated tree from the Bignoniaceae family with showy trumpet flowers that are more closely related to mint than willows, but their narrow willow-like leaves give them their common name.
Let’s look at how to identify the different types of willow trees and examine some different willow trees in detail.
Willow Tree Identification (With Photos)
True willows are in the Salix genus, with 450 currently accepted species.
Willows readily hybridize amongst each other, with at least 160 named hybrids known so far.
Their morphology is also highly variable and often requires magnification and expert skills to properly identify them at the species level.
All of those factors make willows notoriously difficult to identify.
However, we will look at the easier identifying characteristics of the leaves, hairs, twigs, and catkin size and general appearance and use these to help us identify the different types of willows as best as we can without needing a degree in botany!
Identifying Willow Trees by Their Leaf Arrangement
Almost all willows have leaves that are arranged singly at the nodes on alternating sides of the stem.
Rarely are the leaves arranged in opposite or sub-opposite pairs. This is where there are two leaves per node on opposite sides of the stem or placed nearly opposite (sub-opposite).
Another rare leaf arrangement seen in willows is whorls of three leaves that all arise from the same node in a whorl around the stem.
When opposite, subopposite, or whorled willow-like leaves are seen, along with willow catkins, it makes identifying those species relatively easy.
Willows Don’t Have Terminal Buds
One factor that will help distinguish a tree as a willow and not another similar tree is that willows never have terminal leaf buds; they only have lateral buds. This can help you identify a willow in all seasons, but particularly in the winter.
Terminal buds tend to be larger, and they are located directly at the branch tip.
Lateral buds tend to be smaller and are located on the sides of the branches. Lateral buds located at the branch tips of willow trees are always just below and off to one side of the tip, never at the tip.
While I did not have a photo of willow buds in the winter to share with you, if you look at how the leaves grow on this Black Willow below, you can see that there is no terminal leaf. The leaf at the end grows off to the side. The buds develop the same way.
Identifying Willow Trees by Their Leaf Shapes
Willow leaves tend to have, well, willow-like leaves.
So what is a willow-like leaf? They are long and thin, typically three to many times longer than they are wide. It is leaves like those that are used to describe other species with willow-like leaves, including the unrelated Desert Willow.
But not all willows have willow-like leaves. Some have much wider leaves that can be variously shaped. Larger, wider-leaved willows are often a little easier to identify.
When describing willow leaves, botanists specify the “largest medial blade” because the leaf shapes and sizes often vary on the same branch, sometimes quite significantly. So we describe the largest medial leaf located at the end of the branch. This will exclude juvenile leaves growing near the end of the branch; choose the largest instead.
We call it the medial leaf meaning “near the middle,” because of how willows grow. There is never a middle or terminal leaf; they always grow just off-center on the branches and twigs.
Willow leaves may be elliptic (widest in the middle and narrowing at both ends), lanceolate (wider at the base and narrower at the tip, similar to ovate (egg-shaped) but with a length-to-width ratio of 3:1 or greater), oblanceolate (like lanceolate but widest at the tip and narrower at the base), obovate (egg-shaped but widest at the tip), oblong (the two sides are more or less straight and parallel and the ends are mostly rounded), lorate (like oblong but with a length-to-width ratio of 6:1 to 10:1, less than 6:1 is oblong, more than 10:1 is linear), or linear (a very long, slender leaf that has or appears to have parallel sides).
Often the words narrowly or broadly are added to the terms in order to further describe the width in relation to the length.
Identifying Willow Trees by Their Leaf Tips (Apex)
Willow leaf tips vary less than their shapes but can still be useful in helping to identify the different types of willow trees.
Willow leaf tips tend to mostly be long to short acuminate (the two sides narrow to a drawn-out point), acute (the two sides are more or less straight and meet at an angle of less than 90°), caudate (like long-acuminate but where the tip is even more elongated to appear like it has a tail or whip-like appendage), or rounded (also described as convex, not having sides or angles, where the tip is a smooth arc).
Identifying Willow Trees by Their Leaf Base
Willow leaf bases are another useful tool in describing the different types of willow trees.
Their bases are most often cuneate (wedge-shaped, angled at less than 90°, sometimes called acute).
But they may also sometimes be cordate (heart-shaped, where the base is deeply indented and the petiole sits in the indent, creating a lobe on either side) or more often nearly cordate (having a shallow indent, sometimes called retuse when it is very shallow), or rounded (more or less smooth without any angles, sometimes described as convex in willows which is simply a three-dimensional roundness).
Identifying Willow Trees by Their Leaf Margins
Willow leaves tend to have leaf margins that are variously serrated (jagged-toothed, sharp, and forward-pointing, like a saw). Sometimes, the serrations are described as irregular when the size and/or spacing are not uniform. Other times, the serrations are very small and referred to as serrulate (sometimes just called finely serrated).
Sometimes the serrated teeth are spinulose-serrate, where the tooth is tipped with a small, fine, sharp point.
Other margins seen in some willows are crenate (rounded-toothed, the teeth have no points), dentate (squared or triangular teeth that point outwards instead of forwards), or sinuate (shallow wavy indentations, cut no more than ¼ the distance to the midrib, often mistaken for shallowly lobed or crenate).
Margins of willows are often described as flat when the margins all lay in the same plane. This differentiates it from willows with revolute margins where the edge of the leaf is slightly rolled under, towards the back of the leaf.
Finally, sometimes the margins are entire, having no teeth or other features of any kind.
Identifying Willow Trees by Their Plant Hairs (Trichomes)
Willows are often very hairy plants. Plant hairs are not like animal hairs; they just resemble them superficially. Botanists refer to them as trichomes, but here we will just call them hairs.
Botanists have a lot of different terms to describe the variability seen in plant hairs. Certain species have very specific hairs, so describing the type of hair instead of just saying that it’s ‘hairy’ is a very useful tool in helping identify the different types of willow trees.
Willow leaves and twigs often start out much hairier when they are young. They may lose the hair completely when they mature or may retain some or all of their hair.
Willows often have hairs that are described as pubescent (soft, straight hairs), puberulent (like pubescent but shorter), pilose (like pubescent but longer), villous (soft and long; they may be curly or straight and somewhat entangled but loose and not matted), tomentose (long curly hairs that are entangled and matted against the plant surface), woolly (like tomentose but usually denser and not so strongly matted against the plant surface), or floccose (matted hairs which rub off easily and tend to fall off in clumps).
Often botanists use the term silky to describe willow hairs. Silky could be long or short, and it could also be described as puberulent, pubescent, or pilose. Silky is basically just very thin hairs of any length, and the term is used to describe the silky feel of the hair more than its appearance.
Velvety or velutinous is another term often used in willow morphology. These hairs are soft, straight, and one-directional, but again this term describes the feel more than the appearance; they could be short or long, but when rubbed in a certain direction, it feels like velvet. We will call it velvety, but it could also be called appressed pubescent or appressed puberulent, as this could also create a velvety feel.
Usually, the hairs are white in willows, but sometimes they are gray or ferruginous. Ferruginous is just a fancy term to describe rust-colored. We will just use the term rust-colored here. The velvety or velutinous magnolia leaf in the photo below is an example of ferruginous hairs.
Desert Willows often have hirsute hairs; these are stiff straight hairs that typically look just like pubescent hairs. But, again, this term refers to the feel of the hair and not just the look. These hairs are very stiff, giving them a very rough touch, like very coarse sandpaper.
Identifying Willow Trees by Other Surface Features
Glaucous is a term used to describe surfaces that often appear blue-green or gray-green from an epicuticular waxy coating secreted by the plant surfaces that can be easily rubbed off to reveal the true plant surface color beneath. In willows, the glaucous coating is sometimes obscured by hairs on the plant surfaces.
Willows often have glands, sometimes small dots on their leaf or twig surfaces, or other times larger rounded glands on the petioles near the base of the leaf, similar to the glands on the wild cherry in the image below. Sometimes the glands are also located on the leaf margin at the base of the leaf.
A final surface feature to mention seen in some willow leaves is impressed reticulate veins. Reticulate venation describes a network of smaller veins between the main veins, appearing net-like. Impressed-reticulate is when the veins are raised on the lower surface and may or may not be indented on the upper surface.
Identifying Willow Trees by Their Catkins
Almost all willow trees are dioecious, meaning they have separate male and female flowers on separate plants. So to produce viable seeds, both a male tree and a female tree are required.
Both sexes in all willows produce their flowers in inflorescences (groups) called catkins. A catkin is a cylindrical spike of many tiny unisexual flowers.
Often catkins are wind-pollinated, but willows are mostly insect-pollinated. They are often the first to bloom in late winter or early spring and provide critical nourishing nectar and pollen for our bees and other pollinators.
Willow catkins vary in size and shape and whether they open before, during, or after leaf emergence. They are typically erect or spreading but rarely may be pendulous. These are useful clues in helping to identify the different types of willows.
In willows, the flowers in the catkins have no petals and usually no sepals (if present, they are very reduced).
Male flowers typically have 1 – 3(4 – 10) stamens per flower. A stamen consists of a filament (a stalk) that supports an anther (the pollen-producing and dispersing organ of the flower). Stamen filaments are sometimes connate or joined together, and they may or may not be hairy. The shape and color of the anthers vary.
Female flowers consist of a single ovary with two chambers, usually two connate styles (a stalk) that support a stigma (the receptive surface that receives the pollen and directs it into the ovary to fertilize the ovules to produce seeds). Sometimes the ovary is sessile, and sometimes it sits on a stipe (a stalk).
Both male and female flowers have associated bracts (small modified leaves) and nectaries along with the male or female organs.
The shape and size of the nectaries and bracts and the color of the bracts, the shape of their margins, and the presence or absence of specific hair types are all important tools used by botanists to positively identify the different types of willow trees.
But bract and nectary features, along with much of the male and female organ features, require strong magnification in order to properly describe them. Sometimes a 10X magnification hand lens in the field will work fine, but sometimes it is best seen under a microscope. Since we are trying to rely solely on features that can be seen by the naked eye, we will not use those features.
We will rely on flower features that we can easily see. One is the color of the anthers. Most willows, however, tend to have yellow anthers, so this feature is only sometimes helpful in identifying the different types of willows.
Another feature we can sometimes see is whether or not the catkin is hairy. The absence of hairs can sometimes be helpful in identifying the different types of willows. But since the bracts may be hairy when the ovary or filaments (stamens) are not, this usually requires magnification as well.
Finally, female catkins have a couple of easily visible features that can help us identify different willows. They may be densely flowered with many flowers packed close together, or they may be more loosely flowered with fewer, more widely spaced flowers. And ovaries with long stipes are sometimes also easily visible to the naked eye.
Identifying Willow Trees by Their Fruits
Willows all produce capsules for their fruit. Willow capsules are very small, dry, dehiscent fruits that split open upon maturity to release their seeds. Each capsule forms from a single ovary on elongated female catkins.
Capsules contain numerous tiny willow seeds that all possess long hairy arils (a seed coating) that aid in wind dispersal.
Identifying Willow Trees by Branch Growth
How a branch grows out from the trunk can sometimes be used to help determine the different types of willows.
Willow branches tend to be mostly spreading. This is where you have a mix of ascending, horizontal, and descending branches.
Ascending branches are directed toward the top of the tree. Horizontal branches are directed out from the trunk at a 90-degree angle, and they may have descending or ascending tips, but the branch itself is horizontal. Descending branches are directed down toward the ground.
Certain willows have pendulous branches and/or twigs. These descend so strongly that they become vertical, and the tips point directly at the ground.
The color of the branches and twigs and the presence or absence of hairs (described above) are also very useful tools in identifying the different types of willow trees.
Identifying Willow Trees by Tree Habit
Tree habit is the overall shape or form a tree has when viewed from a distance.
Willows are not often described by their habit because many are shrubs, and others are quite variable depending on the growing conditions.
Tree forms of willows, when growing in the open, tend to have open, spreading crowns made of spreading branches that are often somewhat irregular. Occasionally they may be more uniform and form rounded crowns.
Trees with pendulous branches are described as having weeping crowns.
Many willows are multi-stemmed, having multiple trunks from the ground up. Occasionally willows grow as single-trunked trees.
Identifying Willow Trees by Their Bark
Willow bark always starts out smooth when it is young.
Since most willows tend to be shrubby and multi-stemmed, their bark generally remains more or less smooth as it matures and does not often develop characteristic grooves and ridges that can help identify them, except in larger specimens.
Instead, we rely mostly on the color of the bark on the twigs and branches and the presence or absence of hairs (described above) to help identify willows.
However, when willows reach the size of trees, their bark often does develop vertical grooves. Often, the bark also develops interlacing grooves and ridges that create a diamond or v-shaped pattern of grooves (also called furrows).
While this may not be helpful in identifying the different types of willows, it can help you determine if it is a willow or not.
16 Different Types of Willow Trees & Their Identifying Features
1. Pussy Willow – Salix discolor
The Pussy Willow is popular for its soft, fuzzy catkins that appear in late winter or early spring when everything else is still dormant.
Cut branches and catkins are often used in flower arrangements.
It is also sometimes used in landscaping, where it can be grown as a multi-stemmed shrub or trained into a small tree or shrub with a single main stem, unlike the Goat Willow, which only grows as a multi-stemmed shrub.
It is native throughout most of Canada and the northern US and would make a great addition to any garden there.
It easily tolerates wet, clay soils and can be used for erosion control.
Though its population is secure in Canada, in most of the US states where it has actually been assessed, its population is Vulnerable to Critically Imperiled, particularly those in the most southern end of its native range.
Identifying Features of the Pussy Willow
Pussy Willow is a multi or single-stemmed shrub to a small tree with dark reddish-brown to yellowish-brown branches and twigs.
Twigs are velvety or tomentose but may become hairless with age.
Petioles are tomentose and 0.24 – 0.67” long.
Leaves are narrowly elliptic, elliptic, oblanceolate, or obovate, 1.2 – 3.2 (-5.3”) long, 2 – 4 times longer than wide, with rounded or cuneate bases and acute, rounded, or acuminate tips.
Leaf margins are flat, crenate, irregularly toothed, sinuate, or entire.
Lower leaf surfaces are glaucous and hairless, pilose, or sparsely pubescent with sometimes densely pubescent midribs; upper surfaces are dull to somewhat glossy and hairless to pilose.
Catkins flower before the leaves emerge. Male catkins are stout or almost round, 1 – 2” long, with yellow or sometimes purple anthers.
Female catkins are densely flowered, slender or stout, 1 – 4 ¼” long (longer in fruit), with a silky-pubescent ovary.
Often Confused With: Pussy Willow is mostly confused with Bebb’s Willow, which has somewhat shorter and thinner leaves with conspicuously impressed-reticulate veins and long-stalked ovaries in its female catkins. It can also be confused with Goat Willow, which has brownish branches, usually longer petioles, wider and usually longer leaves, and shorter male and female catkins.
Other Common Names: American Pussy Willow, American Willow, Large Pussy Willow, Glaucous Willow
Native Area: Northern North America, including Alaska, USA, and all of southern Canada (excluding Newfoundland), plus northern US states from Minnesota and Iowa east to Maine and New Jersey with scattered mountainous populations west to Montana.
USDA Growing Zones: 3 (2 with protection) to 7
Average Size at Maturity: 6 – 15 ft (to 25 ft) tall, 4 – 12 ft spread
Some Cultivars Available:
- Pink Pussy Willow Salix discolor ‘Rosea’ is a unique cultivar with pretty pale pink catkins. It’s a very fast-growing shrub suitable for wet areas with any soil type in full sun but will tolerate some shade. It performs best if pruned after blooming. – Image via Nature Hills
2. Peachleaf Willow – Salix amygdaloides
The Peachleaf Willow gets its common name because its leaves resemble those of a peach tree.
It is a relatively large willow with a fairly thick trunk, growing quickly to reach 40 ft tall or more, making it a suitable choice when wanting to fill in an area quickly.
Best grown in moist to mesic soils in full sun to partial shade. It is very cold-tolerant and will thrive down to USDA zone 2.
In the wild, it grows in floodplains, lakeshores, near streams and rivers, and in marshes, swamps, sloughs, and moist gullies.
This willow is one of the few that are difficult to propagate from cuttings, so it must be done by seed.
It is sometimes used for erosion control and makes a nice border tree in landscapes with enough room for it to grow.
Identifying Features of the Peachleaf Willow
Peachleaf Willow is a medium to large-sized tree with yellow to gray-brown hairless branches and yellow-brown, gray-brown, or red-brown hairless twigs.
Petioles are 0.3 – 0.83” long and hairless to puberulent, typically without glands.
Leaves are very narrowly elliptic, elliptic, lanceolate, or sometimes lorate, 2.2 – 5.2” long and 2.8 – 6 times longer than wide with a rounded, cuneate, or cordate base and acuminate to caudate tip.
Leaf margins are serrulate. Lower leaf surfaces are hairless and glaucous; upper surfaces are dull green and hairless to sparsely pubescent on the midrib.
Male catkins are 0.9 – 3.2” long with 3 – 7 stamens per flower with partially hairy filaments.
Female catkins are 1.6 – 4.33” long (longer in fruit) with short-stalked pear-shaped ovaries and small stigmas.
Often Confused With: Peachleaf Willow is mostly confused with the Hybrid Crack Willow (Salix x fragilis), which has glands on the petiole near the leaf base, and its lower leaf surface is much paler than the upper surface.
Other Common Names: Peach Leaf Willow, Peach Willow, Almond Leaf Willow, Almond Willow, Wright Willow
Native Area: Central North America from British Columbia east to Quebec in Canada and Idaho south to New Mexico northeast to western New York with isolated populations in Arizona and Kentucky.
USDA Growing Zones: 2 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 70 ft tall, 25 – 35 ft spread
3. Bebb’s Willow – Salix bebbiana
Bebb’s Willow is a multi-stemmed shrub or small tree that is often a dominant species in wetlands and lakeshores in northern North America in USDA zones 3 – 4. It is only occasionally found south of zone 4 and is not recommended for landscape use south of zone 6.
It is sometimes used for erosion control along rivers and creeks.
Otherwise, it is not often planted since it is a short-lived tree that is prone to insect damage and disease.
While it prefers wetland habitats, it is relatively drought-tolerant once established.
Best grown in full sun but will tolerate partial shade. It is not picky about soil type.
This is one of the many willows that hybridize readily, making identification difficult.
Identifying Features of the Bebb Willow
Bebb’s Willow is a shrub or small tree with yellow-brown to dark red-brown pilose branches that may become hairless. Twigs are yellow-green or red-brown and villous to hairless.
Petioles are pubescent; short to 0.5” long.
Leaves are narrowly oblong, elliptic, oblanceolate, or obovate, 0.8 – 3.4” long, 2 – 3 times longer than wide, with cuneate or rounded bases, and acute, acuminate, or rounded tips.
Leaf margins are flat, entire, crenate, or irregularly serrate. Lower surfaces are glaucous, pubescent, pilose, or hairless; wavy hairs are white or gray. Upper surfaces are dull to somewhat glossy, impressed-reticulate, pubescent, puberulent, or becoming hairless.
Male catkins flower before the leaves, are 0.4 – 1.6” long, 1.5 – 3 times longer than wide, with yellow or purple anthers.
Female catkins emerge with leaves, are loosely flowered, 0.65 – 3.3” long, and 2 – 3 times longer than wide, with conspicuously long-stalked ovaries.
Often Confused With: The long-stalked ovaries and conspicuously impressed-reticulate veins that are slightly indented on the upper surface and strongly raised on the lower surface will help differentiate Bebb’s Willow from most other willows. It is mostly confused with the Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) but can be differentiated by the above-mentioned ovaries and impressed-reticulate veins.
Other Common Names: Beaked Willow, Long-beaked Willow, Gray Willow, Diamond Willow
Native Area: Throughout Alaska and all of Canada, south to California and Arizona in the west, and Massachusettes in the east. Populations south of the US-Canadian border are rare and usually confined to the mountains.
USDA Growing Zones: 3 (2 with protection) – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 4 – 30 ft tall, 4 – 20 ft spread
4. Weeping Willow – Salix babylonica
The Weeping Willow is the most easily recognized willow and probably the most common and well-known landscape tree with a weeping habit.
Its pendulous branches and leaves sway gracefully in the wind.
It makes a lovely specimen tree in larger yards and works well on the borders of a pond or lake.
It is a short-lived but rapidly growing tree that can grow up to 10 ft in a single year. It can quickly fill a space but will seldom live more than 40 years.
It is best grown in moist soils in full sun.
It has a strong invasive root system, so it’s best not to plant near pools, homes, foundations, or sidewalks where the roots could damage the structures.
Chinese Willow is often called Salix matsudana, but the two unreliably vary only in the number of nectaries, so the two are now considered to be the same species.
Identifying Features of the Weeping Willow
Weeping Willow are small to medium-sized trees up to 50 ft tall and wide with a weeping crown and yellow-brown to red-brown branches.
Twigs are variously tomentose, especially at the nodes.
Petioles are grooved on the upper surface, about 0.3” long, and tomentose on the lower surface.
Leaves are lanceolate, narrowly oblong, or narrowly elliptic, 3.5 – 6.5” long and 5.5 – 10.5 times longer than wide with cuneate bases and acuminate, caudate, or acute tips.
Leaf margins are flat, spinulose-serrulate, or serrulate, usually entire on the lower portion. Surfaces are hairless to puberulent-silky with straight hairs; the upper surface is dull.
Catkins emerge before the leaves.
Male catkins are 0.5 – 1.4” long with hairy filaments and reddish to yellow anthers.
Female catkins are densely flowered, stout or somewhat rounded, 0.35 – 1” long, and up to three times longer than wide.
Often Confused With: The Weeping Willow is mostly confused with the Weeping Golden Willow (Salix × sepulcralis), which is a hybrid of the Weeping Willow and White Willow and can usually be differentiated by the Weeping Golden Willow’s young twigs that are golden or yellow-green in their first year and become olive green when mature. The Chinese Willow (Salix matsudana) is now considered a synonym of the Weeping Willow since the two species could only be differentiated by the unreliable feature of having one vs. two nectaries per flower.
Other Common Names: Babylon Weeping Willow
Native Area: Northern China, but cultivated around Asia for at least 1000 years.
USDA Growing Zones: 6 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 50 ft tall, 30 – 50 ft spread
Some Cultivars Available:
- Navajo Globe Willow Salix matsudana ‘Navajo’ is a unique cultivar of the Weeping Willow (Salix matsudana aka Salix babylonica) with ascending rather than pendulous branches that create a perfectly rounded crown with bright green leaves with silver undersides. – Image via Nature Hills.
- Hybrid Willow Salix x matsudana x alba is a hardy, adaptable tree that thrives in almost any weather and soil type and is extremely fast-growing, up to 6 ft per year, making a fast privacy fence for anyone in USDA zones 4 – 9. – Image via Fast-Growing-Trees
- Prairie Cascade Weeping Willow Salix ‘Prairie Cascade’ is similar in form and size to the Weeping Willow but with more vibrant golden yellow fall colors and branches that are also golden yellow for added winter interest. And it’s hardy in USDA zones 4 – 10 – Image via Fast-Growing-Trees
5. Corkscrew Willow – Salix babylonica ‘Tortuosa’ or Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’
Corkscrew Willow is a popular cultivar favored for its twisting, contorted branches that provide winter interest to the landscape.
It is a small tree that typically grows with a single trunk rather than a multi-trunked tree.
It is often used as an accent in flower arrangements and is also popular among bonsai enthusiasts.
Best grown in average well-drained soil in moist to wet sites in full sun; it is not drought-tolerant and will not tolerate dry soils.
These are all clones from a female tree; they cannot be grown from seed.
Identifying Features of the Corkscrew Willow
The Corkscrew Willow is a small tree with a broadly rounded crown and dull grayish-black grooved bark.
Twigs are brownish-yellow or greenish, maturing to brown, slender, ascending, or spreading, and they may be pilose when young but hairless when mature and are very uniquely contorted.
Leaves are lanceolate, 2 – 6” long, 5 – 6 times longer than they are wide, and are typically curled and do not lie flat. Lower surfaces are whitish or glaucous; upper surfaces are green and shiny.
Leaf bases are rounded or rarely cuneate; tips are long-acuminate.
Female catkins are 0.4” long with 3 – 5 leaflets at the base.
Often Confused With: The contorted branches of the Corkscrew Willow will differentiate it from all other willows. It is often confused with the Weeping Willow during the summer when the leaves hide the contorted branches; however, looking beneath the leaves will quickly distinguish the two.
Other Common Names: Contorted Willow, Curly Willow, Globe Willow, Pekin Willow, Twisted Willow, Dragon’s Claw Willow
Native Area: Cultivar derived from the Peking variant of the Weeping Willow that is native to northeast China, Manchuria, Korea, and east Siberia.
USDA Growing Zones: 5 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 20 – 30 ft tall, 10 – 15 ft spread
Some Cultivars Available:
- Golden Curls’ Corkscrew Willow Salix matsudana ‘Golden Curls’ is low maintenance, adaptable, fast-growing tree with golden yellow contorted stems and golden bark for added winter interest, and it’s hardy in USDA zones 4 – 7. – Images via Fast-Growing-Trees and Nature Hills – Images Combined by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize.
6. Narrowleaf Willow – Salix exigua
Narrowleaf Willow is a shrubby willow with a broad native range across most of North America.
It is often used to make flexible poles and to make unique furniture with its ability to bend and its attractive gray, grooved bark.
It can be grown as a multi-stemmed shrub or pruned to grow as a small tree.
It is a highly adaptable tree that thrives in cold climates and wet soils and can tolerate extended flooding but is also more drought-tolerant than most willows.
Best grown in full sun or partial shade. It will grow in any soil type.
Identifying Features of the Narrowleaf Willow
Narrowleaf Willow is a multi-stemmed shrub or rarely a small tree with gray-brown, red-brown, or yellow-brown, villous, or tomentose branches that may become hairless.
Twigs are yellowish, yellow-brown, or red-brown, and pubescent, puberulent, tomentose, or silky-villous.
Petiole is very short to 0.4” long, pubescent or puberulent.
Leaves are linear or lorate, 1.2 – 5.4” long, 6.5 – 28 times longer than wide, with cuneate bases and acuminate to acute tips. Leaf margins are slightly revolute, entire, or spinulose-serrulate.
Lower leaf surface glaucous, densely long-silky, villous, or pilose but becoming nearly hairless. Upper surfaces are slightly glossy and long-silky to hairless.
Male catkins are 0.3 – 2.1” long, four times longer than wide, with hairy filaments and reddish to yellow anthers.
Female catkins are loosely to densely flowered, 0.55 – 2.75” long, about five times longer than wide, with more or less sessile pilose to villous ovaries.
Often Confused With: The Narrowleaf Willow is mostly confused with the Interior Sandbar Willow (Salix interior), which has sometimes been considered the same species. The two can be differentiated by Interior WIllows’ often taller height, longer leaves (2.4 – 6.3” long) with upper surfaces that are often densely villous to pilose but may become hairless when mature, and female catkins that are sometimes hairless but may also be long-silky.
Other Common Names: Sandbar Willow, Coyote Willow, Dusky Willow, Gray Willow
Native Area: Most of western North America from British Columbia and Alberta, Canada, south through all the western US states to northern Mexico (when excluding Salix interior).
USDA Growing Zones: 2 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: (6-)15 – 20 ft tall, 6 – 15 ft spread
7. Scoular’s Willow – Salix scouleriana
Scouler’s Willow is a multi-trunked shrub or tree, depending on the environmental conditions.
It is usually found naturally in drier upland areas and mixed forests where other willows usually will not grow. And if often quickly invades areas that have been burned or logged.
It also tolerates moist to wet sites and is often used for erosion control along rivers, creeks, or lakes.
It is cold-hardy down to USDA zone 3 and makes a nice fast-growing hedge.
Do not plant it next to foundations or other structures, as the roots can be invasive.
It is an important source of browsing vegetation for elk, deer, and other wildlife.
Identifying Features of the Scoular’s Willow
Scoular’s Willow is a multi-trunked shrub or small tree with hairless to tomentose gray-brown, yellow-brown, or red-brown branches and yellowish villous, tomentose, or velvety twigs.
Petioles are 0.08 – 0.5” long, velvety, or villous.
Leaves are usually oblanceolate, elliptic, or obovate, 1.2 – 4” long, 1.7 – 3.9 times longer than wide, with cuneate or rounded bases and acuminate or rounded tips.
Leaf margins revolute or flat, entire, slightly serrate, crenate, or sinuate. Lower surfaces are glaucous, silky, or woolly, with white or rust-colored hairs; upper surfaces are somewhat glossy, pilose or short-silky, midrib velvety or villous.
Catkins flower before leaves emerge.
Male catkins are somewhat rounded, 0.7 – 1.6” long, 2 – 3 times longer than wide, with purple to yellow anthers.
Female catkins are very densely flowered, 0.7 – 2.4” long (longer in fruit), 2 – 3 times longer than wide, with densely long-silky ovaries.
Often Confused With: Scoular’s Willow is mostly confused with Bebb’s Willow, which has conspicuously impressed-reticulate veins and long-stalked ovaries in its female catkins. Sometimes it is confused with the Arroyo Willow (Salix lasiolepis), which has shallowly grooved petioles and lorate, narrowly oblong, narrowly elliptic, oblanceolate, or obovate leaves that are 1.4 – 4.9“ long, and often longer and thinner catkins (to 3.5” long).
Other Common Names: Western Pussy Willow, Fire Willow, Black Willow, Nuttall Willow
Native Area: Northwestern North America from Alaska, USA and Northwest Territories, Canada, south to California east to New Mexico, but only isolated populations in the mountains at the southern ends of its range.
USDA Growing Zones: 3 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 20 – 50 ft (to 65 ft) tall, 20 – 50 ft spread
8. Dappled Willow – Salix integra
Dappled Willow is a medium to large deciduous shrub native to moist riverbanks and meadows of China, Japan, Korea, and Siberia.
Its narrow pale green leaves turn a pleasing shade of yellow in the autumn, and its gray-green trunk bark and young red twigs provide winter interest in the landscape.
Best grown in moist but well-drained soil, in full sun or partial shade.
It is frequently used for erosion control along bodies of water.
Its roots can become invasive, so do not plant them near foundations, pools, or other structures that could be damaged by the roots.
Identifying Features of the Dappled Willow
Dappled Willow is a medium to large-sized shrub, usually with multiple stems and grayish-green bark.
Twigs are yellowish or reddish, shiny, and hairless.
Leaves are arranged sub-opposite, opposite, or sometimes in whorls of three on shoots.
Petioles are short or nearly sessile and somewhat clasping around the branch or twig.
Leaves are elliptic-oblong, 0.8 – 2” long, about twice as long as wide, with rounded or shallowly cordate (retuse) bases and short acuminate tips.
Both leaf surfaces are pale green and hairless. Leaf margins are entire or sharply dentate towards the tip.
Catkins are 0.4 – 0.8” (to 1”) long with leaflets at their base.
Male catkins have two connate stamens per flower with bright to dull red anthers.
Female catkins have downy, nearly stalkless ovaries with short styles and 2 – 4-lobed red stigmas.
Often Confused With: Dappled Willow is mostly confused with White Willow when they are young because otherwise, they grow to the size of a large tree. When young, they can be differentiated by White Willows’ often densely long-silky lower leaf surfaces and much longer leaves (about twice as long) that are arranged alternately on the twigs like most willows.
Other Common Names: Japanese Dappled Willow
Native Area: North-eastern China, Japan, Korea, and far south-eastern Russia.
USDA Growing Zones: 5 – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 8 – 10 ft tall, 5 – 10 ft spread
Some Cultivars Available:
- Tri-Color Dappled Willow Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki’ is a very popular compact fast-growing shrub with new growth appearing white, green, and pink, appearing almost like flowers on the branch tips. It makes a fast-growing low to medium-sized hedge and can be trained to grow as a small tree. – Image via Fast-Growing-Trees
- Flame Willow Tree Salix x integra ‘Flame’ is a hybrid cultivar growing up to 20 ft tall and almost as wide, popular for its bright orange-red stems that provide winter interest to the landscape. Extremely fast-growing, great for windbreaks, screens, fences, and adaptable to poor and wet soils, hardy USDA zones 4 – 9. – Image via Nature Hills
9. Goat Willow – Salix caprea
Goat willow is one of several willows that are also commonly called Pussy Willow for its attractive fluffy catkins.
It is a large shrub or small multi-stemmed tree that is sometimes used for hedges or screens and makes a great specimen shrub for boggy soils.
It is one of the few willow species that cannot be propagated by cuttings and must be grown by seed.
It is incredibly easy to grow in any moist to wet soil in full sun to partial shade.
If you live in North America, we have over 90 species of willows that are native here, and many are equally or even more lovely than the Goat Willow.
Identifying Features of the Goat Willow
Goat Willow is a large shrub to small tree with brownish, pubescent to hairless branches. Twigs are yellow-brown or gray-brown, sparsely to densely villous, velvety, or pubescent.
Petioles are 0.3 – 1” long and tomentose to hairless.
Leaves are narrowly to broadly elliptic, oblanceolate, obovate, or broadly oblong, 2- 5.1” long, 2 – 3 times longer than wide, with cuneate or rounded bases and acuminate or rounded tips.
Leaf margins are slightly revolute, entire, crenate, or sinuate. Lower surfaces are glaucous and sparsely tomentose or pubescent with wavy hairs; upper surfaces are dull or slightly glossy and sparsely pubescent.
Catkins flower before leaves emerge.
Male catkins are round or nearly so, 0.6 – 1.5” long, nearly as wide, with distinct hairless filaments and yellow anthers.
Female catkins are densely flowered, stout, or nearly round, 1 – 2.5” long, up to three times longer than wide, with short-stalked, densely short-silky ovaries.
Often Confused With: Goat Willow is mostly confused with Gray Willow (Salix cinerea), which grows as a large shrub to a medium-sized tree (up to 50 ft tall) and has spirally arranged 1 – 3.5” long leaves with crenate margins.
Other Common Names: Pussy Willow, White Pussy Willow, French Pussy Willow, Great Sallow
Native Area: Western and Central Asia, Europe
USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 12 – 15 ft tall, 12 – 15 ft spread
Some Cultivars Available:
- Weeping Pussy Willow Salix caprea ‘Pendula’ is a dwarf weeping form of the Goat Willow that grows up to 8 ft tall and 6 ft wide with the same great pussy willow look but on a compact weeping tree. It loves moist to wet soil and works great for erosion control on slopes. – Image via Fast-Growing-Trees.
- Curly Locks Willow Salix caprea ‘Curly Locks’ is a unique cultivar with contorted, red-orange branches that sweep downward on a standard trunk. Fuzzy silver catkins appear in early spring, becoming golden yellow when the anthers emerge. – Image via Nature Hills.
10. Purple Osier Willow – Salix purpurea
Purple Osier Willow is a shrub willow with purple stems when they are young, giving it its common name.
It is a fast-growing tree that is often used to control erosion along streams and lakes.
It prefers full sun and medium to wet soils, but it can also tolerate partial shade and dry soils, but not extreme drought.
Its flowers are often used in crafts and floral arrangements, and its bark has been used as an alternative to aspirin.
This shrub may need to be pruned hard every five years in order to keep it vigorous and maintain its shape.
If you live in North America, please choose one of our more than 90 lovely native willow shrubs instead.
Identifying Features of the Purple Osier Willow
Purple Osier Willow is a multi-stemmed shrub, sometimes forming clones by stem fragmentation.
Branches are yellow-brown or olive-brown, hairless, and sometimes weakly glaucous. Twigs are hairless yellow-brown or olive-brown and violet-tinged.
Leaves are opposite or subopposite.
Petioles are shallowly grooved, up to 0.28” long.
Leaves are lorate, narrowly oblong, or oblanceolate, 1.4 – 3” long, 3.5 – 7 times longer than wide, with rounded to slightly cuneate bases and acute, acuminate, or rounded tips.
Leaf margins are strongly revolute, entire, or serrulate. Lower surfaces are glaucous and hairless; upper surfaces are hairless and dull to somewhat glossy.
Catkins flower before leaves emerge.
Male catkins are stout to nearly round, 1 – 1 ⅓” long, 3 – 4 times longer than wide, with purple anthers that mature to yellow.
Female catkins are densely flowered, slender or stout, 0.53 – 1.35” long (only slightly longer in fruit).
Often Confused With: Purple Osier Willow is mostly confused with the Narrowleaf Willow, which can quickly be differentiated by its hairy twigs and usually hairy branches as well as its longer and usually thinner leaves that are arranged alternately like most willows. Sometimes it is also confused with White Willow, which is a much taller tree with hairy twigs and flexible branches that may or may not be hairy, and leaves that are arranged alternately.
Other Common Names: Basket Willow, Purple Willow, Blue Arctic Willow
Native Area: Europe, North Africa east to central Asia and Japan.
USDA Growing Zones: 4(3 with protection) – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 10 – 20 ft tall, 10 – 20 ft spread
Some Cultivars Available:
- Dwarf Blue Leaf Arctic Willow Salix purpurea ‘Nana’ is a dwarf cultivar that grows up to 6 ft tall and wide with wispy blue-green leaves with silver undersides and purple young stems in a perfectly rounded form. Grows well in heavy clay and flooded soils. – Image via Nature Hills.
11. White Willow – Salix alba
The White Willow gets its name from its leaves that are white on the lower surface.
It is a medium to large-sized, very fast-growing tree and tends not to make a good landscape tree because it grows so fast that its wood is often weak, but it is sometimes used to quickly fill in low wet spots.
It is also sometimes infected by fungi that produce the diamond willow (it creates diamond-like patterns in the wood).
Stems are often used in basket weakening and other crafts.
If you live in North America, please choose one of our more than 90 lovely native willow species instead.
Identifying Features of the White Willow
White Willows are medium to large-sized trees, usually single-trunked with flexible yellow, gray-brown, or red-brown branches that are sometimes hairy.
Twigs are yellowish or gray to red-brown, pilose, villous, or long-silky.
Petioles are shallowly grooved on upper surfaces and long-silky on lower surfaces, 0.1 – 0.5” long, with spherical glands near leaf bases.
Leaves are narrowly oblong, narrowly elliptic, or lanceolate, 2.5 – 4.5” long, 4.2 – 7.3 times longer than wide, with cuneate or rounded bases and acuminate, caudate or acute tips.
Leaf margins are flat, serrate, or serrulate. Lower surfaces are densely long-silky, sometimes becoming hairless and sometimes glaucous; upper surfaces are dull and sparsely long-silky.
Male catkins are 1 – 2.4” long, 5 – 6 times longer than wide, with hairy filaments and purple to yellow anthers.
Female catkins are loosely flowered, 1.2 – 2” long, 6 – 8 times longer than wide, with short-stalked ovaries.
Often Confused With: White Willow is mostly confused with the Hybrid Crack Willow (Salix x fragilis), which has small glands on either side of the midveins on its leaves and only grows to a maximum height of about 26 ft tall.
Other Common Names: Huntingdon Willow, Swallow-tailed Willow
Native Area: Europe, central Asia, north Africa
USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 100 ft tall, 40 – 70 ft spread
Some Cultivars Available:
- Niobe Golden Weeping Willow Salix alba ‘Tristis’ is a fast-growing, low maintenance, cold-hardy (USDA zones 4 – 8) weeping tree that grows to 50 ft tall and wide with cascading golden branches and golden yellow fall color. – Images via Fast-Growing-Trees and Nature Hills – Combined by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize
12. Yellow Willow – Salix lutea
Yellow Willow is a shrubby willow that sometimes will grow as a small tree.
It gets its common name from its mostly yellow branches and twigs.
It is native to western and central North America (excluding most of the Great Basin), where it grows naturally in moist to wet riparian habitats and is a favorite food source for moose, elk, sheep, and beavers.
It is sometimes planted for erosion control or riparian ecological restoration.
It can be grown easily from cuttings or seeds.
Best grown in any moist to wet soil type in full sun.
Identifying Features of the Yellow Willow
Yellow Willow is a shrub or small tree, often multi-stemmed.
Branches are yellow-gray, yellow-brown, or gray-brown, hairless, and sometimes weakly glaucous. Twigs are red-brown or brownish and hairless or pilose.
Petiole is grooved, 0.16 – 0.75” long, pilose, velvety, pubescent, or becoming hairless.
Leaves are lorate, narrowly elliptic, elliptic, lanceolate, or narrowly oblanceolate, 1.7 – 3.5” long, 2.8 – 5.6 times longer than wide, with rounded or nearly cordate bases and acuminate to acute tips.
Leaf margins are flat, entire, serrulate, crenulate, or sinuate. Lower surfaces are glaucous; upper surfaces dull to somewhat glossy; both surfaces hairless, pilose, or sparsely long-silky.
Catkins flower as leaves emerge.
Male catkins are 0.4 – 1.8” long, 1.5 – 3 times longer than wide, with hairless filaments and yellow or purple anthers.
Female catkins loosely to densely flowered, 0.5 – 1.5” long, about half as wide, with hairless ovaries.
Often Confused With: Yellow Willow is mostly confused with Lemon’s Willow (Salix lemmonni), which has puberulent yellow-brown to reddish-brown twigs and 1.73 – 4.3” long leaves that are 3.4 – 9.9 times longer than wide, and catkins that typically emerge before the leaves appear and are typically shorter and always stout.
Other Common Names: Western Yellow Willow
Native Area: North America from central Canada south through parts of western and central USA (excluding much of the Great Basin region).
USDA Growing Zones: 2 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 15 – 25 ft tall, 10 – 20 ft spread
13. Black Willow – Salix nigra
Black Willow is a small to fairly large tree, depending on the location, that thrives in wet environments in its native range in eastern North America.
It is fast-growing and has weak wood, and is unsuitable for street plantings.
However, it works great next to wetlands overrun by algae from fertilizer runoff. The tree will use up some of the nitrogen and clean the wetland.
It has aggressive roots and is a moisture-loving tree, so it should not be planted next to homes or septic lines to prevent damage to structures.
This tree will only grow well in full sun but is tolerant of any soil type, provided it is moist.
Identifying Features of the Black Willow
Black Willow is a small to large tree with brittle red-brown to yellow-brown hairless branches.
Twigs are gray-brown to red-brown and hairless, pilose, or villous.
Mature bark is grooved to diamond-grooved.
Petioles are 0.08 – 0.6” long, hairless to pilose, with spherical glands near the leaf base.
Leaves are narrowly elliptic, lanceolate, linear, or lorate, 2 – 7.5” long, 6 – 13 times longer than wide, with cuneate to rounded bases and acuminate, acute, or caudate tips.
Leaf margins are serrulate; lower surfaces are hairless or pilose with white or rust-colored hairs; upper surfaces are somewhat glossy, hairless, or pilose.
Male catkins are 1.4 – 3.3” long, 5 – 6.5 times longer than wide, with hairy filaments and small recurved anthers.
Female catkins are 1 – 2.9” long, 4.6 – 7.4 times longer than wide, with usually hairless pear-shaped hairless ovaries (rarely pilose).
Often Confused With: Black Willow is mostly confused with Gooddings’ Willow (Salix gooddingii), which usually has more flexible branches, petioles that only sometimes have spherical glands, and leaves that are often shorter (2.6 – 5.1” long). Sometimes it is confused with the Weeping Willow, but the pendulous branches and/or twigs of the latter should readily distinguish them.
Other Common Names: Southwestern Black Willow, Swamp Willow, Black Gulf Willow
Native Area: Eastern North America from Manitoba east to New Brunswick in Canada and Colorado south to Texas and east to Maine and Florida, USA.
USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 60 ft (to 80 ft) tall, 30 – 60 ft spread
14. Sage Leaf Willow – Salix candida
Sage Leaf Willow is a very pretty shrub willow with large, soft, silver-gray woolly leaves and large yellow catkins that appear in late winter or early spring.
It makes a great shrub when pruned to the base to allow resprouts to grow, which will produce a shorter shrub suitable for small gardens, or it can be left unpruned to grow as a large shrub for larger gardens.
Grows best in full sun or partial shade in any average soil, provided it is moist.
It grows naturally in calcareous fens, swamps, wet meadows, peatlands, lakeshores, and floating mats.
This North American native is found throughout Canada with stable populations, but in most of its range across the northern US states (including Alaska), its population is Vulnerable to Critically Imperiled.
Identifying Features of the Sage Leaf Willow
Sage Leaf Willow is a small to large shrub, often forming clones by layering.
Branches are dark gray-brown to yellow-brown, woolly, floccose, or becoming hairless. Twigs are yellow-brown, red-brown, or gray-brown, densely white woolly or tomentose, sometimes floccose.
Petiole is grooved, 0.1 – 0.4” long, and tomentose or densely white-woolly.
Leaves are lorate, narrowly elliptic, or oblanceolate, 1.85 – 4.1” long, 5 – 9.3 times longer than wide, with rounded or cuneate bases and acute or rounded tips.
Leaf margins are revolute, entire, or sinuate but entire on lower ⅓; lower surfaces glaucous with tomentose-woolly hairs; upper surfaces dull or somewhat glossy, tomentose or floccose.
Catkins flower with leaf emergence.
Male catkins are 0.7 – 1.5” long, 2 – 3 times longer than wide, and purple to yellow anthers.
Female catkins densely to moderately flowered, 0.8 – 2.6” long, 2.2 – 3.6 times longer than wide.
Often Confused With: Sage Leaf Willow is mostly confused with the Meadow Willow (Salix petiolaris), which is a taller shrub with red-brown to violet puberulent branches, yellow-green to red-brown pubescent or velvety twigs, and lower leaf surfaces that are densely long-silky to hairless. Sometimes it is also confused with Bog Willow (Salix pedicellaris), a low to medium-sized shrub with often trailing hairless branches, puberulent to hairless twigs, and oblong, elliptic, or oblanceolate leaves that are 0.74 – 2.1” long with glaucous and usually hairless surfaces.
Other Common Names: Hoary Willow, Sage Willow
Native Area: Northern North America from Alaska, USA, east through almost all of Canada to Labrador, south to Maryland, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, and Idaho in the USA.
USDA Growing Zones: 2 – 6
Average Size at Maturity: 1.5 – 13 ft tall, 1.5 – 13 ft spread
Some Cultivars Available:
- First Editions® Iceberg Alley® Sageleaf Willow Salix candida ‘Jefberg’ is a popular low shrub to 6 ft tall with a nice rounded form, gorgeous silver leaves, and fuzzy yellow catkins with showy red stamens. Extremely cold-hardy and tolerates waterlogged soils. – Image via Nature Hills.
15. Sitka Willow – Salix sitchensis
Sitka Willow is a fast-growing and moderately long-lived upright shrub or tree native to lake edges, streams, and wet meadows in mountains from 3300 – 11,200 ft in the Pacific Northwest of North America.
It is sometimes used for erosion control along rivers and lakes and makes a great hedge for wet areas or a shrub for wetland gardens.
Its branches are sometimes used in basket weaving.
It is a host to numerous native butterflies and moths.
Best grown in moist to wet soils of any type in full sun to partial shade.
Identifying Features of the Sitka Willow
Sitka Willow is a small shrub or tree.
Branches are yellow-brown or red-brown, hairless, or pilose. Twigs are yellow-brown, gray-brown, or red-brown, densely short-silky, velvety, or villous.
Petiole is sometimes grooved, tomentose, or velvety, 0.1 – 0.6” long.
Leaves are elliptic, oblanceolate, or obovate, 1.2 – 4.7” long, 2.1 – 4 times longer than wide, with cuneate or rounded bases and acuminate or rounded tips.
Leaf margins are revolute (especially lower half) or flat, entire, irregularly serrate, or sinuate; lower surface densely short-silky or woolly; upper surfaces slightly glossy or sometimes dull and glaucous, pilose or short-silky.
Catkins flower just before or with leaves.
Male catkins are 0.67 – 2.1” long, 2 – 3.6 times longer than wide, with purple to yellow anthers.
Female catkins are somewhat densely flowered, 1 – 2.9” long (longer in fruit), five times longer than wide with short-stalked silky to villous ovaries.
Often Confused With: Sitka Willow is mostly confused with the Coastal Willow (Salix hookeriana), which has longer petioles (to 1.1”) that are villous, woolly, pilose, or tomentose, and 1.41 – 4.84” long leaves that are 1.5 – 4.2 times longer than wide with much more variable bases, tips, and margins, and longer and often wider catkins. Sometimes it is also confused with Scoular’s Willow, which usually has oblanceolate leaves that are never over 4” long and have glaucous lower surfaces, and typically shorter catkins.
Other Common Names: Coulter Willow
Native Area: Pacific Northwest of North America from Alaska, USA, south through British Columbia, Canada, to northern California, and east to Montana, USA.
USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 3 – 25 ft tall, 3 – 25 ft spread
16. Desert Willow – Chilopsis linearis
The Desert Willow is a gorgeous, extremely drought-tolerant tree with large pink to purple, very showy, fragrant trumpet-shaped flowers.
It is not a true willow. In fact, it is more closely related to mint than it is to any willow. But it does have narrow, willow-like leaves, which give it its common name.
Best grown in full sun in any well-drained soil. It tolerates both acidic and alkaline soils and does well in poor soils.
Unlike all other willows, this is extremely drought-tolerant and suitable for xeriscaping.
It grows naturally in arid and semi-arid environments throughout the southwestern North American deserts.
It does not do well in climates that receive more than 30” of precipitation annually.
If you have 15” or less rainfall annually, occasional watering in the driest months may enhance flowering.
Identifying Features of the Desert Willow
Desert Willows are large shrubs or small trees with ascending branches and open, spreading, often leaning crowns.
Young stems are hirsute to pilose but may become hairless with scattered glands near the nodes.
Leaves are both opposite and alternate, often in condensed false whorls. They are linear to linear-lanceolate, 2 – 5” long, and less than 0.4” wide. Surfaces typically have gland dots and scattered trichomes along the base, midveins, and margins.
Inflorescences are branched panicles, hirsute to densely villous-tomentose.
Flowers are tubular with one plane of symmetry. Calyx is 0.4 – 0.6” long, split nearly to the base, and pubescent. The corolla is two-toned, lavender-pink to magenta, and 1.2 – 2.4” long.
Fruit is a long thin legume-like capsule, 5.1 – 12.6” long and less than ⅓” wide, with several thin seeds with a fluffy coma on both ends to aid in wind dispersal.
Often Confused With: The Desert Willow is fairly unique with its willow-like leaves, large, showy flowers, and its preference for dry desert climates. However, it is often confused with x Chitalpa, an intergeneric hybrid of the Desert Willow and the Northern Catalpa. It has lanceolate leaves that are 4 – 5” long and more than twice as wide at about 1” in width that are almost always in whorls of three.
Other Common Names: Bow Willow, Flowering Willow, Flor De Mimbre, Mimbre, Willowleaf Catalpa, Willow-Leaved Catalapa
Native Area: Southwestern North America in the Mojave, Sonoran, Colorado, southern Great Basin, and Chihuahuan deserts of southwestern USA and northern Mexico.
USDA Growing Zones: 7 – 11
Average Size at Maturity: 15 – 30 ft tall, 10 – 20 ft spread
Some Cultivars Available:
- Sweet Bubba Seedless Desert Willow Chilopsis linearis ‘Sweet Bubba Seedless’ is a low-maintenance, multi-trunk tree with large long-blooming burgundy flowers that are very fragrant and produce no messy seeds. It is also disease-resistant and drought-tolerant and thrives in dry climates with little access to water. – Image via Fast-Growing-Trees
- Bubba Jones Desert Willow is a new hybrid of ‘Bubba’ with its long, thin, and glossy green leaves and ‘Warren Jones‘ with its fragrant, pink and burgundy two-toned flowers with yellow highlights and ruffled petals. It is also nearly seedless, drought-tolerant, and disease resistant and thrives in arid climates in USDA zones 6 – 11. – Image via Fast-Growing-Trees.
Whimsical Willow Trees
Growing willow trees in your garden is exceptionally easy to do as long as the conditions are right. So, in order to ensure success, it is important to do some research.
First, you must know which USDA Planting Zone you live in and choose a willow suitable to your climate.
All true willows thrive in USDA zones 4 – 6, and many will do well down to zone 2, some even in zone 1, and some will even thrive in zones 7 – 9. So read up on your chosen species.
If you live south of zone 9, willows are not a good choice. Unless, of course, you live in an arid or semi-arid area, then the Desert Willow is a fantastic choice for zones 7 – 11. I just planted two Desert Willows at my home in New Mexico, USA, and they are doing amazing.
True willows are moisture-loving trees, and most will thrive in heavy clay, wet, moist, or waterlogged soils. If this describes your site, then willows are the perfect tree for you!
True willows are unsuitable for xeriscaping or any location without abundant rainfall or access to irrigation. Desert Willow, on the exact opposite extreme, is unsuitable for wet climates or even moist soils and can easily be grown in areas with no access to irrigation.
All willows are not particularly picky about soil type and are adaptable to a wide range of soils, pH, and quality and will thrive in poor-quality soils.
Most willow trees, true and desert, prefer growing in full sun, but some species will tolerate partial (but not full) shade. So read up on your chosen species.
Check out How to Pick A Tree For Your Yard for more information on choosing the right tree for the right spot in your yard.
True willow roots tend to be strong and aggressive and could be quite invasive. This makes them unsuitable for planting next to pools, homes, foundations, or other structures that their roots could damage. The Desert Willow does not have invasive roots and can be planted next to structures.
Most willows, including Desert Willow, will propagate readily from cuttings. Cuttings are easy, simply snip off the new growth, trim excess leaves, dip the base in rooting hormone (being certain that there is a node there for roots to grow out from), and plant them in coir or peat until they develop roots and can be transplanted.
Only a few species must be grown from seeds. Two notable exceptions are the Goat Willow and Peachleaf Willow.
You should always try to choose species native to your area to enhance biodiversity and wildlife values. Wherever native willows are available, I strongly encourage you to plant them. Some non-native willows have a tendency to be invasive, so do your research and choose native species wherever possible. With about 450 species worldwide to choose from, this should not be difficult.
Interesting Facts About Willow Trees
Willow trees of the Salix genus are called ‘nature’s aspirin’ because the bark from 2 – 3-year-old branches can be made into a pain-relieving tea. The salicin in the bark converts to salicylic acid, aka aspirin. Some people believe that conversion makes it gentler on your stomach than lab-made products, which can be difficult for some people to ingest.
The salicin and methyl salicylate (where aspirin was originally derived) is strongest in the inner bark, but the tannic acid in the bark can make it difficult to ingest enough to make a difference. Using the leaves is a weaker but less bitter-tasting source.
Willows readily hybridize with over 160 named hybrids that are currently known.
The Black Willow (Salix nigra) is the tallest willow tree, often reaching heights of 100 ft and reaching a maximum height of 148 ft tall.
The Dwarf Willow (Salix herbaceae) grows 0.4 – 2.4” tall; some call it the world’s smallest tree species, even though it is a very tiny shrub. Its small size makes it able to survive well in subarctic and arctic environments.
Human Uses of Willow Trees
The leaves and bark of willow trees have been used medicinally for fevers, headaches, arthritis, and other inflammations for millennia around the world. Its use was documented as far back as Hippocrates and likely extends back much further than that.
Strips of bark make great band-aids in the field or when hiking; they will help stop bleeding and are antiseptic.
Native Americans used the willow bark and wood for twine and harpoons, as well as to start fires, weave baskets, and build fishing weirs.
In northern Europe, a fishing net made from willow dates back to 8300 BC.
The wood is used in boatmaking, wicker furniture, boxes, brooms, furniture, flutes, sweat lodges, tools, wood veneer, and more.
Willows are often used in ecological restoration and particularly in erosion control next to rivers and streams.
Wildlife Values Willow Trees Provide
Willows are a critical component of cold and temperate climate vegetation communities, where they are often the first tree in the landscape to provide nutritious nectar and pollen for native bees and other pollinators since they bloom before anything else.
Elk and beaver will browse on the leaves in the summer, and during the winter, they will feed on the bark and twigs, providing necessary winter nourishment.
Grouse and other birds will often eat the willow buds, especially in winter.
Some birds will eat the seeds of the willows, and other birds, notably hummingbirds, warblers, and others, use the soft fluffy seeds to line their nests.
Many small bird species will nest in the densely twiggy shrubs.
Willows are crucial host trees to countless native butterflies and moths. Some say they are second only to oak in terms of being the best host plants for Lepidoptera.
Whimsical willows are truly beautiful trees. I hope you have enjoyed learning more about this often overlooked and misunderstood yet vitally important group of trees. Now you can use your newfound skills to go out and identify the willows around you. Enjoy!
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Lyrae grew up in the forests of BC, Canada, where she got a BSc. in Environmental Sciences.
Her whole life, she has loved studying plants, from the tiniest flowers to the most massive trees.
She is currently researching native plants of North America and spends her time traveling, hiking, documenting, and writing.
When not researching, she is homeschooling her brilliant autistic son, who travels with her and benefits from a unique hands-on education about the environment around him.