Notice Nature Everywhere. A Willowy Experience, by Alan Branhagen

Willows are one of the last of our shrubs and trees to lose their leaves in autumn. They turn shades of yellow—anywhere from greenish-yellow to whitish-yellow. As earlier fall colors start to paint our landscapes, the willows offer a decidedly green contrast in a diversity of shades depending on the species.

They can be gray-green as with the sage willow (Salix candida), to bicolored, with some species showing stunning glaucous blue-green leaf undersides. The pussy willow (Salix discolor) fits this bill, but if you live around the Great Lakes the blue-leaved willow (Salix myrticoides) shows this to a tee.

Male pussy willow, male flowers.

In late summer and fall, our willows are alive with the billion-plus birds that make the amazing trek from taiga to tropics. Willows host an amazing array of insects: dozens of moth species alone, as well as the monarch mimic, the viceroy (whose bird-dropping-like caterpillars continue the species’ mimicry).

Each spring, willows are the earliest to leaf out and flower, though blooming is in procession, depending on the species, from late winter’s pussy willow to mid-summer’s sandbar willow (Salix interior). Here again they invite a plethora of pollinating insects and hosts and are teaming with bird life on the return trek from tropics to taiga. Plant several species for an extended bloom time.

Woodbine/grape creeper (Parthenocissus vitacea) in sandbar willow.

I learned the amazing diversity of willows a long time ago. Now they are enjoying a long overdue renaissance as sustainable gardening discovers how important they are to a healthy landscape.

If you take time to observe when willows bloom, where they grow, what type of plant they are—short shrub, suckering thicket, or tree—they become easier to identify. All have catkin-type flowers and are either male or female. Males with their pollen-rich flowers offer a bounty of protein-rich food for their pollinators, while female catkins produce nectar and then the capsules burst forth with cottony seeds. Yes, there are bee species that will feed their young no other food source!

Willows are easy to grow, too. Once the leaves drop you can bury cut stems and then stick them in the soil; come spring they will root. You can also cut stems before they leaf out and root them in the ground, or in pots that are an equal mix of pea gravel and compost.

Slender willow (Salix petiolaris). “I love the gorgeous stem color contrasting with the fine leaves,” says Branhagen. Note: The Audubon Native Plant database is a great resource to search for native willow species by region. Type in the key word “willow” to find native willow species by specific zip code.

Open your eyes to our wonderful world of willows. Insert them into your home gardens and landscape. I guarantee they will enrich your year with their beauty and the village of creatures they provide for.

About the Author. Alan Branhagen is a naturalist and plantsman specializing in botany, birds, and butterflies, and is the author of Timber Press’ The Midwest Native Plant Primer and Native Plants of the Midwest. Alan has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in landscape architecture and is the director of operations at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. All images courtesy of Alan Branhagen.

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