The Wild World of Willows:  Natural History, Ecology and more!

As a community, let's intertwine our root masses of relationships so that soil and soul can stay in place, in the same way that willows prevent stream erosion. Let's collectively create flexible stems and skills that help us weave baskets of inclusivity and resilience. And may we cultivate adaptability so that we are able to re-root even if we’re torn away by the floodwaters and lost for some time...

The evolutionary life history of Willows (Salix spp.) have been shaped by floods and the extremes found in riparian habitats. With about 12 species of native Willows in the Southeast, this old friend has a lot to teach us about the land and strength in adaptability. 

In the upcoming Willow Pack Basket workshop with Tyler Lavenburg, our fingers will be bending willow like the tiny currents and streams that have shaped them. We’ll also be joining Luke Cannon for a Magnificent Tree Walk shortly after on November 6. In the excitement leading up to these workshops, we sought out to learn a bit more about the natural history of willows. We hope you enjoy! 

Willow
Black Willows (Salix nigra) are tree sized and found in moise soils. Photo by Bruce Marlin CC bysa 2.0
Willow Black Willow catkins along Colonial Lake in Colonial Lake Park in Lawrence New Jersey
Black Willow (Salix Nigra) leaves and catkins by Famartin CC bysa 2.0

Humans and Willows

Human relationships with willow are diverse: including medicine (aspirin is derived from the active component salicin found in willow bark); furniture making (wicker furniture is made of willow), food (willow catkins are edible), and most notably, basketry. 

But how far back have humans been weaving baskets with Willows? The archeological record of willow pack baskets dates far back to at least 900 BCE throughout the Americas, Asia, Africa and Europe – and for good reason. While a shallow basket is the best structure for carrying sensitive forage items like berries and mushrooms, heavier items like acorns or apples and wood or gear can also be accommodated in larger baskets. A sturdy willow pack basket allows both arms to be free to gather and explore!

willow pack back
Photo provided by Tyler Lavenburg
WEB Willow Basket PMB
Willow Pack Baskets made in Tyler Lavenburg's Firefly Gathering workshops. Photo credit: Parker Michels-Boyce

Pollinators of Willows

Willows are angiosperms, meaning their catkins are made of tiny flowers that co-evolved with insects! Many wild bees use willows as their primary food source. Since most species of willows are among the first plants to flower in spring, willows are an important source of nectar for pollinators during that sensitive time. Planting willows near your garden and orchard might be a way to mitigate hive collapse and declines in pollinator species.

A miners bee feeding on a Willow catkin
A miners bee (Andrena spp) foraging on a willow catkin..Many species of Miners Bees rely on willows as an essential food source – these bees are also important pollinators of crops including blueberries and apples. Photo source: Burger et al (2013) Journal of Comparative Physiology

Who are their Close Relatives and When did Willows Evolve?

Willows belong to a plant family called the Salicaceae, along with their sisters: the Cottonwoods and Aspen. According to a really neat site that compiles genomic research about flowering plants and their co-evolved insect friends, the Salicaceae began diversifying about 80 million years ago – that’s  just before the K-Pa Extinction which wiped out about three-quarters of all life on earth, including the dinosaurs. But the mighty Salicaceae family were able to persevere through that mass extinction and radiate out into the world, diversifying and evolving into the plant species we know today. Now that is flexibility!

Radiating phylogeny tree for Angiosperms (flowering plants) which highlights where Willows are in the evolution of plants
The order that Willows are in, the Malpighiales, is highlighted in green. The plant orders at the beginning of the spiral (e.g. the Amborellales & Nymphaeales) are the earliest flowering plants to evolve. Branching patterns show where lineages diverged into different orders of plants – branches that are red show orders with high species richness, whereas branches with purple show low species richness. Species richness in plants is often tied with insect species richness, as they co-evolved together to fill new niches and adapt to changing conditions. Yellow stars refer to major radiations discussed in the source: “Darwin review: Angiosperm Phylogeny and Evolutionary Radiations” by Pamela Soltis et al 2019.

Soil Ecology of Willows

Willows have a thriving rhizosphere, meaning they have a resilient community of mutualistic microbiota that live in a thin layer around its roots. This community includes various species of mycorrhizal partners that differ based upon locality. Since willows are an early succession plant, they help establish the microbial foundations for later succession forests.

What Willow species are native to the Southeast?

The southeastern US has about 12 species of native Willows, and 7 species of introduced and naturalized willows. In western North Carolina, the native Black Willow (Salix nigra) which usually forms tall trees, is the most common, followed by XXXX (Salix humilis var humilis) which usually forms small shrubs. Eurasian willows have naturalized in our area, including XXXX (Salix cericea) and Basket willow (Salix purpurea).. A monograph on Southeastern Willows by George Argus includes excellent keys to native and naturalized species. Many native species aren’t idea for basketry (e.g. large baskets require stalks to be non-branching), so many people cultivate Eurasian species with care and commitment to best practices so that native species can continue to thrive

botanical drawing of male and female catkins on Salix discolor
Identifying native Willow species can sometimes be challenging. Willows are dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are found on different plants. In the diagram, the male Willow catkin (where the pollen is made) is on the left, and the female catkin (where the seed develops) is on the right. The diagram is of Salix discolor, also known as Pussy Willow, a native willow to North America. Diagram from Bailey "Cyclopedia of American Horticulture" (1906).
photos of male and female catkins in Salix and Populus
A comparison of male and female catkins in Willow and Populus (Aspen/Cottonwood). Photo diagram from "Different autosomes evolved into sex chromosomes in the sister genera of Salix and Populus" by Hou et al 2015

As a community, lets intertwine our root masses of relationships so that soil and soul can stay in place, in the same way that willows prevent stream erosion. Lets collectively create flexible stems and skills that help us weave baskets of inclusivity and resilience. And may we cultivate adaptability so that we are able to re-root even if we’re torn away by the floodwaters and lost for some time

If you didn’t register in time for our Willow Pack Basket workshop with Tyler Lavenberg (waiting list only), there’s a good chance there’ll be a similar workshop at an upcoming Annual Gathering. In the meantime, we invite you to learn more about the Magnificent Trees with Luke Cannon on November 6! 

We hope you’ll join us in weaving a future that’s resilient and inclusive, diverse and flexible, and fully alive.

About the author: Nastassja Noell is a lichenologist and Firefly Gathering’s Registration Coordinator. She loves weaving stories about ecological research and is a proud recipient of the United Plant Savers Deep Ecology Artists Fellowship. You can read more about her here.

WRITTEN BY

Nastassja

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Lily Harlin

Bookkeeper

Lily is an artist, creator, and dreamer. Since a very young age, she has been immersed in the natural world and draws heavy inspiration from the wild. Though her medium changes frequently, Lily’s art and expression always incorporate an element of the organic and unpredictable. She got her associate in fine arts in 2023, and now volunteers at her school as a ceramic studio monitor. She hopes to open a studio of her own one day to have a place to teach and inspire others. In addition to doing commission work, Lily has been creating many graphics for The Firefly Gathering since 2019. Lily grew up in the Earthskills community from the time she was eight years old, so having the opportunity to grow and give back in so many ways has been incredibly fulfilling. No matter where she ends up, this group of people and ideas will always hold a special place in her heart.