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Willow Trees and Shrubs: Interesting and Useful Plants

A lovely weeping willow beside a pond

A lovely weeping willow beside a pond

Willow Plants

Willows are attractive and interesting plants that have many uses. The plants belong to the genus Salix and exist as trees or shrubs. They are famous for their salicin content. The study of this chemical's structure led to the creation of acetylsalicyclic acid (also known as ASA and aspirin). Another potentially useful chemical named miyabeacin has recently been discovered in the genus. The chemical might help to fight some types of cancer, though it has only been tested in cell cultures at the moment.

Willows grow well where I live and are one of my favourite plants. I’m always pleased to see their catkins appear in spring. In this article, I discuss the following topics related to the plants.

  1. The willow family
  2. Leaves
  3. Catkins
  4. Selected willow species
  5. The Salley Gardens song
  6. Salicin
  7. Miyabeacin
  8. Uses of willows
A  weeping willow tree in Vancouver in the middle of March

A weeping willow tree in Vancouver in the middle of March

The Willow Family

Willows belong to the plant group known as Angiosperms (flowering plants) and the family Salicaceae. Poplar trees, cottonwoods, and aspens also belong to this family. The members of the family are valued by many people. Their flowers are arranged in catkins and are often an attractive sight in early spring.

Wild willows are found mainly in the northern hemisphere and in areas with a temperate climate and moist soil. Some species live in cold regions such as arctic and alpine environments, however, where they may reach just a few inches above the ground and have an atypical appearance. Willows are popular as cultivated plants and are planted in some areas where they don't grow naturally.

The Salix genus contains several hundred species. The stated number ranges from three hundred to a little over four hundred, depending on the source. Naturally-created hybrids and ones created by horticulturists produce an even larger number of willow types. They are interesting to explore.

The white willow (Salix alba) is a medium to large tree. It's known for the almost white undersurface of its leaves and the paler than normal upper surface. It's native to Europe and Asia.

Features of the Leaves

Willows are deciduous. Most have leaves that are long and narrow with an even narrower base and a pointed tip, as shown in the photo above. Some species have wider and oval leaves, including the great sallow or goat willow. I discuss this plant later.

The margin of the leaves is toothed in some species but not in others. The leaves are smooth or pubescent (hairy). They are usually attached to the stem in an alternate arrangement, but there are some exceptions to this rule.

Though the upper surface of the leaves is generally a shade of green, the colour varies slightly. Some plants have yellow-green, red-brown and green, or grey-green leaves, depending on the species, the stage of development, or the time of year. An impressive cultivated plant known as Salix integra 'Hakuro Nishiki' has variegated leaves that are a mixture of white and pink. This plant is shown in the last photo in the sequence above.

Male catkin of Salix delnortensis or the Del Norte willow

Male catkin of Salix delnortensis or the Del Norte willow

The Del Norte willow is a shrub that is native to southern Oregon and Northern California. It grows in mountainous habitats and forms thickets. The stamens in the catkins are purple or red at first and then become yellow.

Fats About the Catkins

Willows reproduce by means of catkins, which appear before the young leaves unfurl. A catkin is a thin spike of flowers. Willows are dioecious, which means that all of the catkins on a plant bear only female flowers or only male ones. The petals of the flowers are small or absent. The flowers may contain a small bract, however. They have no scent. Despite these facts, they are often attractive.

"Pussy willow" is a term used for various species that produce catkins with a hairy, furry, or woolly appearance. The very noticeable and attractive catkins remind people of a cat's tail, which is probably why the plant was given its nickname. The "fur" protects the young catkins. As the catkin matures and expands, the flowers and their reproductive structures become visible.

The male flowers contain the stamens that produce pollen. The female flowers contain a pistil, which in turn contains a stigma to catch the pollen, an ovary, and the ovules located inside the ovary. Each ovule contains an egg cell. Like other flowering plants, willows reproduce sexually. Pollination is performed by wind and insects. The fruit that develops from an ovary is a capsule that breaks open to distribute the seeds.

The Great Sallow or Goat Willow

Salix caprea is known as the great sallow. It's also called the goat willow and the pussy willow. According to The Wildlife Trusts (a registered UK charity for protecting nature), the plant is also known as a sally. It's native to Europe and Asia. It has oval leaves instead of narrow ones and grows as a small tree.

The male catkins are very attractive and are responsible for the pussy willow name. They are one to two inches long, grey in colour, and have a furry or woolly appearance. The female catkins are less attractive and are smaller. They have pale green pistils with flask-shaped ovaries and aren't furry at first. This changes when the seeds appear. The mature seeds bear long and silky hairs. The fruit opens up to release the seeds, which are distributed to a new habitat by the wind.

Like sallows, osiers are willows. Salix viminalis is known as the basket willow or the common osier. It has the typical narrow and elongated leaves of a willow. Historically and in the present, the narrowest branches of the plant have been used to make baskets.

Salix × sepulcralis 'Chrysocoma' is known as the weeping golden willow. It's an artificial cross between a particular variety of Salix babylonica and Salix alba. It's a frost hardy plant. The photo above was taken in December.

The Beautiful Weeping Willow

The lovely weeping willow tree is Salix babylonica. It's a large tree whose branches form a graceful arch. In scientific terms, they are said to be pendulous, or hanging. The plant has been a favourite tree of mine since my childhood. The one in my photo above was taken by Lost Lagoon in Vancouver's Stanley Park.

S. babylonica is native to East Asia but has been planted in many other places. The tree likes moist soil and bright sunlight. I usually see it beside a lake or a pond. The land beside Lost Lagoon is a suitable habitat for the plant because the lagoon contains fresh water. The catkins of the tree aren't particularly showy. The tree is valued for the lovely appearance created by the drooping branches and its mature leaves.

The Dwarf or Snowbed Willow

The dwarf or snowbed willow (Salix herbacea) is an unusual but attractive member of its genus. It's important to look at the scientific name of a plant when exploring its features. There is at least one other species of Salix known as the dwarf willow. Snowbed willow is an appropriate name for the plant because it grows where snow is found during at least part of the year. The plant lives in the Arctic at ground level and in the alpine environment at the top of high mountains. It has a wide distribution and is found in multiple countries.

The dwarf willow is very small. It ranges from 0.5 cm to 5 cm in height. Each plant produces only two or three leaves, which are rounded or elliptical in shape. The leaves are crenulated, which means they have a wavy margin, and they curl upwards. Like other willows, the plant produces male and female catkins. The female catkins produce a red capsule as a fruit.

A purple willow with unopened catkins

A purple willow with unopened catkins

Salix purpurea is known as the purple willow or the purple osier. The young catkins are often purple or red, which is an unusual colour. The young stems sometimes have a purple or red tinge as well. The colour fades as the plant matures.

The Salley (or Sally) Gardens Song

Listening to "The Salley Gardens" song was part of my childhood. The word "salley" is believed to be related to the word "sallow". In the past, villages sometimes maintained a willow plantation nearby to provide thatch for the roofs of cottages. The garden had another function. It was a spot where couples met.

The song was based on a poem by William Butler Yeats, an Irish writer. His poem was in turn based on three lines of a song that he had heard a local woman sing in the past but couldn't fully remember. The song has three verses. The lyrics of the first one are shown below. The third verse is the same as the first one, except the word "love" replaces "life" in the fifth line.

Down by the salley gardens

My love and I did meet

She passed the salley gardens

With little snow white feet

She bid me take life easy

As the leaves grow on the tree

But I being young and foolish

With her did not agree

Maura O'Connell is the main singer in the video above. She was born in Ireland. She's known for blending folk songs with country music.

History of Salicin and Aspirin

Aspirin is an impressive medication that has many potential benefits in the body. Its history is linked to willow plants. The International Aspirin Foundation was set up to study the chemical's effects. The foundation has multiple medical and scientific advisors.

Salicin and Salicylic Acid

According to the Aspirin Foundation, even as early as 400 BC, Hippocrates was giving women willow bark to help relieve the pain created by childbirth. The inner bark of a willow contains the highest concentration of salicin. The substance is converted to a compound called salicylic acid in our body. The acid can also be produced in a laboratory. Unfortunately, it can irritate the gut.

Production of Acetylsalicylic Acid

Felix Hoffmann from the Bayer company found a way to turn salicylic acid into acetylsalicylic acid. This was found to be a less irritating substance than salicylic acid. The medication was first produced by Bayer in 1897. Today the chemical is known as ASA or as aspirin. Hoffmann's last name is spelled with both one n and two. I've used two as the Bayer website does.

Aspirin Use

Aspirin can be very useful but can also cause potentially harmful side effects. If the medication is used more than occasionally, a doctor's advice should be sought. Parents should also seek a doctor's advice with respect to giving children and teenagers aspirin. The drug is linked to an increased risk of a serious condition called Reye's syndrome in this age group.

Possibly because of the success of aspirin, medicinal assessment of other salicinoids in willow has been mostly neglected by modern science, and the National Willow Collection has proven to be a gold-mine of exciting new chemistry.

— Dr. Jane Ward, Rothamsted Research

Rothamsted Research and Miyabeacin

Rothamsted Research is a renowned agricultural research institute in Britain. It originated in the nineteenth century. My father was a soil scientist and was associated with the institute, which at that time was known as the Rothamsted Experimental Station. While I was doing research for this article, I found an Amazon UK page listing a publication written by my father and published by the station. The discovery was a lovely link to the past.

Today, Rothamsted Research has a very large collection of willow plants and tissues known as the National Willow Collection. In combination with biologists from the University of Kent, researchers at the institute have made an interesting discovery. They've found a previously unknown chemical called miyabeacin in willow tissues. They've also found that this chemical kills cancer cells in the lab, including those of a type that is resistant to other drugs.

It's important to note that the scientists haven't yet tested the chemical in animals or in humans. Results in lab equipment are not always the same as results inside living bodies. Nevertheless, the discovery of miyabeacin could be significant.

The National Willow Collection began in 1923 after the first world war caused a serious problem in Britain's basket willow population.

Miyabeacin Structure and Laboratory Effects

The researchers have discovered that a miyabeacin molecule has two salicin groups, which they say enables it to give a "double dose of anti-inflammatory and anti-blood clotting ability."

In laboratory experiments with cell cultures, miyabeacin was active against cells of several cancer types, including throat, ovarian, and neuroblastoma ones. Neutoblastoma generally affects children and is sometimes challenging to treat.

Even if miyabeacin is not found to be helpful in living organisms, it's possible that scientists could modify the structure of the molecule in some way to enable it to work. The quote from Dr. Jane Ward shown above offers hope that willow plants may contain other useful chemicals for us. Nature can be valuable in more ways than one.

Other Uses of Willows

Willows have other uses besides being a source of salicin and miyabeacin. The branches of certain species are still used for making baskets as they were in the past and are also used in other forms of wickerwork. The wood of willow trees is used by artisans to make rustic furniture. One variety of Salix alba is grown in the UK to provide wood for cricket bats.

Willow bark contains chemicals called tannins as well as salicin. Historically, the tannins from certain willows were used to turn animal hides into leather. The bark is sometimes used to make string.

The intact plant is also useful. It's grown for use as a biofuel. A biofuel is derived from biomass, such as the bodies of plants or algae or the waste created by animals. It's considered to be a renewable energy source.

Specific species of willows are planted as shelterbelt trees and shrubs. A shelterbelt is a barrier made of living plants that protects a sensitive area from adverse environmental conditions, such as wind or storms. Willows can help to prevent the erosion of land.

Lovely Plants With Possible Drawbacks

I admire wild willows near my home and planted willows in parks, but I've never grown the genus in my garden. Some species are said to be invasive. The roots of certain willows can spread aggressively. They may damage items such as underground pipes and may even crack sidewalks. The location where a cultivated willow is planted, its potential size when mature, and its possible effects should be considered carefully.

I'm content to observe willows in the wild and in my local parks, which I always enjoy. The plants are interesting to see and to investigate. The chemicals inside them may have more benefits than we currently realize. That's a hopeful and lovely thought.


  • Willows in North America from Native Plants PNW (Pacific Northwest region of North America)
  • The Willow entry from the Canadian Encyclopedia
  • Facts about pussy willows from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden
  • Great sallow facts from the Missouri Botanical Garden
  • Information about the goat willow from The Wildlife Trusts
  • Weeping willow facts from the North Carolina State University
  • Information about the dwarf or snowbed willow from the New York Natural Heritage Program
  • "Down by the Salley Gardens" information from Irish Music Daily
  • Aspirin timeline from the International Aspirin Foundation
  • Willow bark information from WebMD
  • Rothamsted Research and the National Willow Collection
  • A willow chemical that may be an anti-cancer compound from the Medical Xpress news service

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2020 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 26, 2020:

Thank you for the comment and for sharing the interesting information, Nikolas. I like the idea of a Willow Sunday feast.

Nikolas Turustus on August 26, 2020:

In Ukraine, Willow Sunday is one of the most favourite feast. It combines christian and pagan traditions. Your article is very meaningful and emotional. Thanks, my congratulations!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 03, 2020:

Thank you, Shiham.

Ashly R on July 03, 2020:

Interesting article

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 24, 2020:

Thanks for the visit and the comment, Genna. Willow trees can be very attractive. I hope you're having a good weekend.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 24, 2020:

Hi, Liza. I think trees are beautiful, too. The whomping willow was an interesting example! Thank you for the comment.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on May 24, 2020:

Hi Linda. I love Willows, so I especially liked this article. Those Weeping Golden Willows are just amazing. I wasn't aware of the salicin and miyabeacin benefits, nor the many other uses. Thank you.

Liza from USA on May 24, 2020:

I enjoyed reading this article. I have no decent knowledge about the willow trees other than whomping willow tree in one of my favorite Harry Potter books. After moving to the US, I have seen some willow trees here in Utah. I love trees, therefore, for me, they are beautiful. Thank you for sharing the excellent article, Linda.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 19, 2020:

I appreciate your comment, Nithya. I hope scientists do more research related to miyabeacin and that the chemical proves to be very useful.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on May 19, 2020:

Interesting and informative article about willows. It must have been a wonderful experience to find your father's publication, must have brought back happy memories. I hope more research on miyabeacin structure leads to a cure for cancer. Great article, thank you for sharing.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 18, 2020:

Thanks for the interesting comment, Chuck. I love cottonwood trees. Some grow very near my home. Cottonwoods belong to the same biological family as willows, but they don't belong to the willow genus and aren't classified as a willow. They are beautiful trees, though.

Chuck Nugent from Tucson, Arizona on May 18, 2020:

Great Hub. Interesting and very informative. I never knew that cottonwoods were a type of willow. We have cottonwood trees in southern Arizona. When you see some you can be sure there is either a stream nearby or the water table is very high in that area. Streams and high water tables usually exist together here.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 17, 2020:

Hi, Flourish. Yes, I'm sure my father's career and interests inspired my love of science. Thank you for commenting.

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 17, 2020:

The weeping willow is my favorite type of tree and its versatility is an additional bonus. Thanks for sharing the information about your father. I’m sure his background inspired your love of science.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 17, 2020:

Hi, Thelma. Thank you very much for the visit and the comment.

Thelma Alberts from Germany on May 17, 2020:

Hi Linda. I didn´t know that the name of these trees are called willows. I didn´t know that they are connected to making aspirin, too. Very informative hub. I am glad that you write about these beautiful trees. Well done.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 17, 2020:

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and describing the effects of the willows where you live, Denise. Blessings to you, too.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on May 17, 2020:

I agree that more research should be done with natural things than producing more chemical cures. It is wonderful to me that the willow has been so helpful to mankind for so long just doing what it does naturally. We have a few white willows here in the apartment complex and they do "lift" the soil around them and break the sidewalks. I like them anyway.



Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 17, 2020:

Thank you, Chitrangada. I appreciate your comment very much.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 17, 2020:

Thanks for the visit, Maren. There's no need to feel foolish! Common names are confusing. There's a plant called the desert willow which isn't in the willow genus, for example, and if people refer to a plant as a sallow or an osier they may not realize that it's a willow.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on May 17, 2020:

Great article with such interesting information about the Willow trees and shrubs. The weeping Willow trees look gorgeous. Thank you for sharing so many beautiful pictures and useful information about it, and your father's connection with this is beautiful to know about. You must be feeling proud of this.

The song is so nice. Thank you for sharing this excellent article.

Maren Elizabeth Morgan from Pennsylvania on May 17, 2020:

Hi Linda, well I feel a little foolish! I grew around pussy willow bushes/tress and willow trees and never connected the two even though they both had the word "willow" in their name! Now I know they are in the same genus. Laughing at myself!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 16, 2020:

Thank you very much for the comment, Pamela. I was surprised by the discovery of my father's work because it was created a long time ago. The report wasn't in stock, but the page describing it was still present on the Amazon UK site.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 16, 2020:

I have always been very fond of weeping willow trees and I found I didn't know much about them before I read your article.

It is so interesting that you found an article that your father wrote when he was associated with Rothamsted Experimental Station. I imagine that find was a surprise for you.

This is a very well-written article that is truly interesting. I always learn so much from you.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 16, 2020:

Hi, Heidi. Willows can certainly be pretty trees. I appreciate your visit and comment.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on May 16, 2020:

We have some willows in our area, but usually in park type areas. They are very pretty.

Interesting to hear about your father's connection to all of this. Bet you were surprised to find that.

Thanks for sharing your almost limitless knowledge of nature with us, as always!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 16, 2020:

Thank you, John. I love nature, too! I hope you stay safe at this time.

John Sarkis from Winter Haven, FL on May 16, 2020:

Hi Linda,

Enjoyed your article. And, what can I say, green is my favorite color. I love nature!...

Take care

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 16, 2020:

Thanks for the visit, Peggy. It was very moving to find the report written by Dad. I remembered that when we were living in the UK, Dad was linked with Rothamsted Experimental Station in some way and the institution was mentioned in our home. I did a search for information about the institution and added my father's name. It was wonderful to find the publication.

I hope the tree in your neighbourhood doesn't cause any problems. Willows are beautiful. It's a shame if they have to be removed.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 16, 2020:

Weeping willow trees are so beautiful to view, mainly when they are by streams or lakes. I knew of the link to aspirin but learned much more by reading your article. It must have been a fun discovery for you finding an article written by your dad. There is one weeping willow tree in our subdivision. I will bet that they did not know that it can harm sidewalks and underground pipes when they planted it.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 16, 2020:

Thank you very much for such a kind comment, Penny.

Penny Leigh Sebring from Fort Collins on May 16, 2020:

I was expecting an informational article with maybe one or two new tidbits, and I got so much more. I was delighted with how in-depth this was!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 16, 2020:

Hi, Bill. It can be sad when trees are removed or die. Two tall ones beside one of my local trails were removed recently. It had to happen because their interior was decaying and they were dangerous for passers by, but it was still sad.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on May 16, 2020:

Very interesting, Linda. I was not aware of the connection to aspirin. Where I grew up in Rhode Island there was a large weeping willow on a farm behind our house that I always admired. Sadly, it is gone today. They are beautiful trees and always catch my attention when I see one.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 16, 2020:

Your memories of the tree sound lovely, Bill. I have some lovely memories of a particular tree from my childhood, though it wasn't a willow.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 16, 2020:

Your grandma's willow tree must have left you with some wonderful memories, Devika. Trees can be very impressive.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 16, 2020:

It's interesting to hear that you have some weeping willows in Arizona, Linda. I think the trees deserve their popularity.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 16, 2020:

Thank you, Liz. Willows can be beautiful trees. They have some interesting features as well.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 16, 2020:

Hi, Adrienne. I think it's a lovely tree, too. It's very attractive.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 16, 2020:

The weeping willow is my favorite tree. There was a large one in our front yard while I grew up. I would spend hours under it, watching the clouds flow by. Great memories for me are associated with that tree. Thanks for the memories, my friend.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 16, 2020:

Hi Linda I like Willow trees my grandma had one and I admired this beautiful tree. These facts taught me a lot and the photo is beautiful.

Linda Chechar from Arizona on May 16, 2020:

These are my favorite willow trees! It's amazing that we have some weeping willows here in Sedona, Arizona.

Liz Westwood from UK on May 16, 2020:

Willows are my favourite type of tree. It's an idyllic scene to view a weeping willow by a river or stream. I had not realised the link with aspirin. This is a detailed and extremely interesting article.

Adrienne Farricelli on May 16, 2020:

I always loved the looks of the weeping willow tree. There was a beautiful one overlooking a mirror-like pond when I used to live in Lancaster, Pa nearby the Amish country. So pretty. On top of being pretty, this is such a useful tree.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 15, 2020:

Yes, I like her version of the song. I'm going to look for more of her music.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on May 15, 2020:

The song by Maura O'Connell is lovely too.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 15, 2020:

Thank you for the comment, John. I appreciate your visit.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on May 15, 2020:

A comprehensive and educational article about willow trees, Linda. What beautiful trees they are, especially weeping willows. Also, very useful in many ways. What a wonderful surprise to find a paper written by your own father while researching it. Thank you for sharing.