Willows, sallows, and osiers form the genusSalix, around 400 species of deciduoustrees and shrubs, found primarily on moist soils in cold and temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Most species are known as willow, but some narrow-leaved shrub species are called osier, and some broader-leaved species are referred to as sallow (from Old Englishsealh, related to the Latin word salix, willow). Some willows (particularly arctic and alpine species) are low-growing or creeping shrubs; for example, the dwarf willow (Salix herbacea) rarely exceeds 6 cm (2 in) in height, though it spreads widely across the ground.
Willows all have abundant watery barksap, which is heavily charged with salicylic acid, soft, usually pliant, tough wood, slender branches, and large, fibrous, often stoloniferousroots. The roots are remarkable for their toughness, size, and tenacity to life, and roots readily grow from aerial parts of the plant.
The leaves are typically elongated, but may also be round to oval, frequently with serrated margins. Most species are deciduous; semievergreen willows; coriaceous leaves are rare, e.g. Salix micans and S. australior in the eastern Mediterranean. All the buds are lateral; no absolutely terminal bud is ever formed. The buds are covered by a single scale, enclosing at its base two minute, opposite buds, alternately arranged, with two small, opposite, scale-like leaves. This first pair soon falls, and the later leaves are alternately arranged. The leaves are simple, feather-veined, and typically linear-lanceolate. Usually they are serrate, rounded at base, acute or acuminate. The leaf petioles are short, the stipules often very conspicuous, look like tiny, round leaves, and sometimes remain for half the summer. On some species, however, they are small, inconspicuous, and fugacious (soon falling). In color, the leaves show a great variety of greens, ranging from yellowish to bluish.
Young male catkin
Willows are dioecious, with male and female flowers appearing as catkins on different plants; the catkins are produced early in the spring, often before the leaves, or as the new leaves open.
The staminate (male) flowers are without either calyx or corolla; they consist simply of stamens, varying in number from two to 10, accompanied by a nectariferous gland and inserted on the base of a scale which is itself borne on the rachis of a drooping raceme called a catkin, or ament. This scale is square, entire, and very hairy. The anthers are rose-colored in the bud, but orange or purple after the flower opens; they are two-celled and the cells open longitudinally. The filaments are threadlike, usually pale brown, and often bald.
The pistillate (female) flowers are also without calyx or corolla, and consist of a single ovary accompanied by a small, flat nectar gland and inserted on the base of a scale which is likewise borne on the rachis of a catkin. The ovary is one-celled, the style two-lobed, and the ovules numerous.
Almost all willows take root very readily from cuttings or where broken branches lie on the ground. The few exceptions include the goat willow (Salix caprea) and peachleaf willow (Salix amygdaloides). One famous example of such growth from cuttings involves the poet Alexander Pope, who begged a twig from a parcel tied with twigs sent from Spain to Lady Suffolk. This twig was planted and thrived, and legend has it that all of England's weeping willows are descended from this first one.
Willows are often planted on the borders of streams so their interlacing roots may protect the bank against the action of the water. Frequently, the roots are much larger than the stem which grows from them.
A small number of willow species were widely planted in Australia, notably as erosion-control measures along watercourses. They are now regarded as invasive weeds, and many catchment management authorities are removing and replacing them with native trees.
Willow species are hosts to more than a hundred aphid species, belonging to Chaitophorus and other genera, forming large colonies to feed on plant juices, on the underside of leaves in particular.Rust, caused by fungi of genus Melampsora, is known to damage leaves of willows, covering them with orange spots.
The leaves and bark of the willow tree have been mentioned in ancient texts from Assyria, Sumer and Egypt as a remedy for aches and fever, and in Ancient Greece the physician Hippocrates wrote about its medicinal properties in the fifth century BC. Native Americans across the Americas relied on it as a staple of their medical treatments. It provides temporary pain relief. Salicin is metabolized into salicylic acid in the human body, and is a precursor of aspirin. In 1763, its medicinal properties were observed by the Reverend Edward Stone in England. He notified the Royal Society, which published his findings. The active extract of the bark, called salicin, was isolated to its crystalline form in 1828 by Henri Leroux, a French pharmacist, and Raffaele Piria, an Italian chemist, who then succeeded in separating out the compound in its pure state. In 1897, Felix Hoffmann created a synthetically altered version of salicin (in his case derived from the Spiraea plant), which caused less digestive upset than pure salicylic acid. The new drug, formally acetylsalicylic acid, was named Aspirin by Hoffmann's employer Bayer AG. This gave rise to the hugely important class of drugs known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
Some of humans' earliest manufactured items may have been made from willow. A fishing net made from willow dates back to 8300 BC. Basic crafts, such as baskets, fish traps, wattle fences and wattle and daub house walls, were often woven from osiers (rod-like willow shoots, often grown in coppices). One of the forms of Welsh coracle traditionally uses willow in the 'lats'. Thin or split willow rods can be woven into wicker, which also has a long history. The relatively pliable willow is less likely to split while being woven than many other woods, and can be bent around sharp corners in basketry. Willow wood is also used in the manufacture of boxes, brooms, cricket bats (grown from certain strains of white willow), cradle boards, chairs and other furniture, dolls, flutes, poles, sweat lodges, toys, turnery, tool handles, veneer, wands and whistles. In addition, tannin, fibre, paper, rope and string can be produced from the wood.
The willow tree as seen as the main part of an heraldic escutcheon over the main portal of a patrician house belonging to the Salis family in Chur, Switzerland, circa 1750
Environmental art installation "Sandworm" in the Wenduine Dunes, Belgium, made entirely out of willow
Agriculture: Willows produce a modest amount of nectar from which bees can make honey, and are especially valued as a source of early pollen for bees. Poor people at one time often ate willow catkins that had been cooked to form a mash.
Energy: Willow is grown for biomass or biofuel, in energy forestry systems, as a consequence of its high energy in-energy out ratio, large carbon mitigation potential and fast growth. Large-scale projects to support willow as an energy crop are already at commercial scale in Sweden, and in other countries, others are being developed through initiatives such as the Willow Biomass Project in the US and the Energy Coppice Project in the UK. Willow may also be grown to produce charcoal.
Art: Willow is used to make charcoal (for drawing) and in living sculptures. Living sculptures are created from live willow rods planted in the ground and woven into shapes such as domes and tunnels. Willow stems are used to weave baskets and three-dimensional sculptures, such as animals and figures. Willow stems are also used to create garden features, such as decorative panels and obelisks.
Religion: Willow is one of the "Four Species" used ritually during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. In Buddhism, a willow branch is one of the chief attributes of Kwan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. Christian churches in northwestern Europe and the Ukraine often used willow branches in place of palms in the ceremonies on Palm Sunday.
Culture: In China, some people carry willow branches with them on the day of their Tomb Sweeping or Qingming Festival. Willow branches are also put up on gates and/or front doors, which they believe help ward off the evil spirits that wander on Qingming. Legend states that on Qingming Festival, the ruler of the underworld allows the spirits of the dead to return to earth. Since their presence may not always be welcome, willow branches keep them away. In traditional pictures of the Goddess of Mercy Guanyin, she is often shown seated on a rock with a willow branch in a vase of water at her side. The Goddess employs this mysterious water and the branch for putting demons to flight. Taoistwitches also use a small carving made from willow wood for communicating with the spirits of the dead. The image is sent to the nether world, where the disembodied spirit is deemed to enter it, and give the desired information to surviving relatives on its return. The willow is a famous subject in many East Asian nations' cultures, particularly in pen and ink paintings from China and Japan.
A gisaeng (Korean geisha) named Hongrang, who lived in the middle of the Joseon Dynasty, wrote the poem "By the willow in the rain in the evening", which she gave to her parting lover (Choi Gyeong-chang). Hongrang wrote:
"...I will be the willow on your bedside."
In Japanese tradition, the willow is associated with ghosts. It is popularly supposed that a ghost will appear where a willow grows. Willow trees are also quite prevalent in folklore and myths.
In English folklore, a willow tree is believed to be quite sinister, capable of uprooting itself and stalking travellers. The Viminal Hill, one of the Seven Hills Of Rome, derives it name from the Latin word for osier, viminia (pl.).
Hans Christian Andersen wrote a story called "Under the Willow Tree" (1853) in which children ask questions of a tree they call "willow-father", paired with another entity called "elder-mother".
"Green Willow" is a Japanese ghost story in which a young samurai falls in love with a woman called Green Willow who has a close spiritual connection with a willow tree. "The Willow Wife" is another, not dissimilar tale. "Wisdom of the Willow Tree" is an Osage Nation story in which a young man seeks answers from a willow tree, addressing the tree in conversation as 'Grandfather'.