Willows are part of the Salix genus and of the Salicaceae family. There are about 400 species of deciduous trees and bushes that grow mainly in wet soils or near water courses. They live in temperate or cold regions of the Northern hemisphere.
Most have a tree shape. There are some, however, especially the species that live near the arctic, which form large and low bushes. For example, Salix Herbacea rarely exceeds 6 cm in height and develops a lot in width, covering the ground. The name derives from the Latin Salix. The willow is a deciduous tree, up to 8-10 meters tall, originating from central Asia, but widespread in the wild in most of the Mediterranean area.
The stem of the willow is stocky and short, has a wide oval crown, often very disordered, characterized by long pendulous branches, which sometimes reach the ground; the foliage is bright green, greyish on the underside, lanceolate, very elongated, with serrated edge; the male flowers are long yellow catkins, while the female ones are small greenish inflorescences, both bloom on different trees, at the beginning of spring, when the leaves sprout. On the female flowering plants follow the fruits, small capsules containing plumed seed motifs, which spread in the air in the summer. Very elegant and fast-growing tree, much loved in past centuries in gardens; For some years, other species of the same genus have been preferred to S. babylonica, due to the many parasites that easily afflict this tree.
As we said, they usually have the shape of a tree or a bush. In the first case, their height can vary, depending on the species, from 4-5 meters to more than 20 meters.
The bark of the willows is covered by abundant sap which contains a very concentrated dose of salicylic acid. This makes the bark and plant very resistant to the wet environment in which it lives. Most willows in autumn are covered with a white wax that protects them during the winter. This wax does not allow water to pass and protects the tree from drying out. However, it tends to block his breathing. To overcome this problem the plant is covered with small scales from which a small amount of air can pass.
The branches are long, very flexible and fibrous while the roots are very resistant, long, often stoloniferous and tend to grow also from the aerial part of the plant.
The leaves are usually lanceolate, but in some varieties they can also be round or oval with serrated edges. Most species are deciduous or semi-green. Only a few varieties such as salix micans or Salix australior, present in the eastern Mediterranean, are evergreen. The leaves can take on many shades of green, but sometimes also yellow and bluish-glaucous. The gems are always lateral, never apical.
The flowers of the willow
Willows are dioecious plants. Female or male catkins, therefore, appear in different plants. They are produced in the early spring, usually before the leaves or when they open. The male flowers have neither cup nor corolla and are formed only by stamens which can vary from two to ten. They are accompanied by nectariferous glands. The male plants are the most decorative because, although they have no petals, as they have said, they have given their flowers bright colors to attract insects and encourage pollination. We can therefore find yellow, orange or red catkins depending on the species. The female flowers are equally devoid of calyx or corolla and consist of a single ovary accompanied by a small gland that produces nectar to attract pollinating insects.
Watering and exposure
Willows need constant and regular watering, they are very afraid of drought, in fact, they are often placed near lakes or streams, in constantly wet soils. The plant prefers sunny positions, since in excessively shaded places it tends to have a stunted development; it does not fear the cold and tolerates very intense and prolonged frost without problems. They prefer rich and deep soils, not excessively draining; they can often be planted in places where many other essences would suffer, or where the water stagnates and the soil is constantly soaked. The multiplication generally occurs by cutting, using the semi-woody tips of the branches; the cuttings of willow root with great ease. Beware of pests and diseases! Babylonic willows in particular are often attacked by wood rods and creeping cancers; the wood is quite fragile, so it often happens that the thinner branches break.
Spontaneous species in Italy
There are about 30 of them. It is difficult, however, to identify them clearly because they are plants that hybridize with great ease, even in a spontaneous state.
The most common are:
- Salix alba or white willow
- Salix caprea
- S. Myrsinetis
- S. herbacea
- S. herbacea
- S. purpurea or red willow
- S. cinerea or gray willow
However, some species of oriental origin have also spontaneously come to light, such as S. viminalis and S. babylonica (weeping willow).
Description of some varieties
White willow (salix alba)
It has lance-shaped leaves, up to 10 cm long and 1.5 wide, tapered at both ends. When they are young they wear a silver hair, then they turn green on the upper page and gray or blue-green on the lower one.
The bark is gray-brown, deeply fissured. The male and female flowers are very small, devoid of petals, in cylindrical catkins. The male ones are yellow. The fruits are capsule-shaped, green about half a centimeter. The seeds are white and cottony. It is spontaneous in Western Asia and in Europe. It lives on the banks of the rivers or in the prairies near the water courses. The tree can reach 25 m in height and usually has the form of an expanded column.
Weeping willow from China (salix babylonica)
It has lance-shaped leaves up to 10 cm long and 2 wide, finely serrated at the edge, bluish-green and hairy when young and then shiny. The branches are pendulous, shiny and brown.
The bark is gray-brown. The flowers are small carried on cylindrical catkins. The males are up to 5 cm long, yellow. Females reach 3 cm.
It comes from Northern China and currently does not grow spontaneous, but only cultivated. It is very common in Africa, Asia and Europe and therefore, in reality, it is very difficult to be sure about its original origin. Some particular varieties are: pekinensis (Peking willow, has a completely erect habit); tortuous (willow of the dragon's claw, has particularly twisted leaves and branches); pendula (with very long, pendulous branches and very dense foliage).
Usually they reach 10-12 meters in height and have a weeping expanded shape.
Salix x sepulcralis
It has strictly lanceolate leaves, 12 cm long and 2 wide, serrated at the margin. When young, they are hairy and then turn blue-green. The bark is gray brown, slightly cracked. Catkins are up to 7.5 cm long. It is a hybrid of horticultural origin. It comes from the intersection of the white willow and the weeping willow Chinese. It reaches about 20 meters and has an expanded and weeping form.
Brittle willow (salix fragilis)
It has lance-shaped leaves up to 15 cm long and 3 wide, with silver fuzz from young. They then become dark green in the upper part and blue violet in the lower part. The bark is dark gray with deep cracks.
Catkins are cylindrical, about 6 cm. It is native to Europe and Asia and lives on the banks of rivers. Its name refers to the fact that its branches come off very easily.
It can reach 15 meters and has an expanded shape.
Willow cultivation is quite simple, in a suitable environment.
They root very quickly even from fallen branches to the ground accidentally and multiply therefore very quickly through cuttings or layering. They are all very rustic plants and require only a rather moist and fertile soil. The ideal to take root is a bare, moist and rather acid soil (pH from 5.5 to 7.5). It would be advisable to avoid pruning because they would lose their natural form. It is better to proceed only if the plant becomes too large or if we have come into possession of a specimen inserted too close to a building.
They are usually inserted at the edge of water courses or where there are frequent floods: in this way their roots make the shores more resistant to the action of water movement.
It should be noted, however, that we must absolutely avoid planting them near the houses. Over time, their roots are able to reach the joints between the drainage pipes (especially the metal ones) of the water and the sewers, creating considerable damage.
We have to put them in the garden only if we have large spaces and large aquatic areas far from the houses and any installations.
They have also been used in Australia with the aim of blocking water erosion. Over time, however, they have reproduced enormously and become a threat to the native flora. This is why the authorities of that country are trying to stop their proliferation by replacing them with local plants.
Uses of willow
Willows are cultivated mainly for decorative purposes along streams or near lakes. The most known in this respect is the so-called weeping willow (salix babylonica).
Birch branches have already been used by primitive man. They were used to build fishing rods or fish traps.
Then as today they are used for the production of baskets, hats, chairs and many ornamental objects. In fact, their branches are very long and flexible.
They are also very useful for attaching screws to their supports.
Wood is not very strong and very light. It is used to build cassettes and packaging.
It is also however used for
- Biomass or biofuel production. It is in fact very much held in consideration for its ability to grow quickly.
- For the production of gunpowder
The medicinal qualities of the willows were already known by the Egyptians. It was known that their bark and leaves were a good remedy for fever and flu. In fact several animals had been noticed, when they were evidently in bad health, they used to go and lick the bark of these plants. The salicin that is contained in the leaves and bark of the willows is metabolized in the human body as salicylic acid.
In 1897 Felix Hoffmann created a synthetic version of salicin, which also gave less problems to the digestive system. He called this compound "Aspirin" which later gave rise to a whole series of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines.
Weeping willow - Salix babylonica: The use of willow over the years
The Willow plant is native to China and arrived in Europe in 1692. Many uses and beneficial properties discovered over time and from the various areas that the Willow reached: in ancient Greece its bark was used as antimalarial efficacy and its leaves as fodder for sheep. Also from ancient times, it was successfully used also against disorders that required astringents and its chopped leaves positioned on fresh sores performed a haemostatic action. During the Middle Ages, the most widespread use of the Willow was to calm sexual hyperexcitability, while its febrifugal power was recognized only at the end of the 17th century. In addition to phytotherapy, this tree is useful today, thanks to the flexibility of its branches, also to tie together different parts.
It is very common to see specimens of Weeping Willow along streams or rivers. This is its natural habitat
visit: weeping willow
The weeping willow is part of the Salicaceae family and is native to the temperate zones of the northern hemisphere.
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The vinici willow (Salix viminalis) belongs to the Salicaceae family. Originally from Europe and Western Asia
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Meaning weeping willow
The weeping willow is native to China and arrived in Europe via the Silk Road around 1692. It comes from
visit: meaning weeping willow