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Willows, sallows, and osiers form the genus Salix, around 400 species of deciduous trees 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 English sealh, 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 (2.4 in) in height, though it spreads widely across the ground.
Willows all have abundant watery bark sap, which is heavily charged with salicylic acid, soft, usually pliant, tough wood, slender branches, and large, fibrous, often stoloniferous roots. 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 edges. 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. Usually, the bud scale is fused into a cap-like shape, but in some species it wraps around and the edges overlap. 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, resembling tiny, round leaves, and sometimes remaining for half the summer. On some species, however, they are small, inconspicuous, and caducous (soon falling). In color, the leaves show a great variety of greens, ranging from yellowish to bluish.
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.
Willows are very cross-fertile, and numerous hybrids occur, both naturally and in cultivation. A well-known ornamental example is the weeping willow (Salix × sepulcralis), which is a hybrid of Peking willow (Salix babylonica) from China and white willow (Salix alba) from Europe.
Willows are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species, such as the mourning cloak butterfly. Ants, such as wood ants, are common on willows inhabited by aphids, coming to collect aphid honeydew, as sometimes do wasps.
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 roots spread widely and are very aggressive in seeking out moisture; for this reason, they can become problematic when planted in residential areas, where the roots are notorious for clogging French drains, drainage systems, weeping tiles, septic systems, storm drains, and sewer systems, particularly older, tile, concrete, or ceramic pipes. Newer, PVC sewer pipes are much less leaky at the joints, and are therefore less susceptible to problems from willow roots; the same is true of water supply piping.
Pests and diseases
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).
Willow has been listed as one of the 38 substances used to prepare Bach flower remedies, a kind of alternative medicine promoted for its effect on health. However according to Cancer Research UK, "there is no scientific evidence to prove that flower remedies can control, cure or prevent any type of disease, including cancer".
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Environment: As a plant, willow is used for biofiltration, constructed wetlands, ecological wastewater treatment systems, hedges, land reclamation, landscaping, phytoremediation, streambank stabilisation (bioengineering), slope stabilisation, soil erosion control, shelterbelt and windbreak, soil building, soil reclamation, tree bog compost toilet, and wildlife habitat.
- 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 Ukraine often used willow branches in place of palms in the ceremonies on Palm Sunday.
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. Taoist witches 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".
- Old Man Willow in J. R. R. Tolkien's legendarium, appearing in The Lord of the Rings.
- "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'.
- In "The Secret of Salix Babylonicus," set in the Babylonian exile, the willow is portrayed benignly as a symbol of sympathy in grief and perseverance in suffering, an upright character who shows solidarity with the exiles and comes to express the spirit of the psalms.
- The "Whomping Willow" is a feature of the grounds of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter stories.
- Salix acutifolia Willd. – long-leaved violet willow
- Salix alaxensis (Andersson) Coville
- Salix alba L. – White Willow
- Salix amygdaloides Andersson – peachleaf willow
- Salix arbuscula L.
- Salix arbusculoides – littletree willow
- Salix arctica Pall. – arctic willow
- Salix arizonica Dorn
- Salix atrocinerea Brot. – grey willow
- Salix aurita L. – Eared Willow
- Salix babylonica L. – Babylon willow, Peking willow or Weeping willow
- Salix bakko
- Salix barclayi Andersson
- Salix barrattiana – Barratt's willow
- Salix bebbiana Sarg. – beaked willow, long-beaked willow, and Bebb's willow
- Salix bicolor
- Salix bonplandiana Kunth – Bonpland willow
- Salix boothii Dorn – Booth's willow
- Salix brachycarpa Nutt.
- Salix breweri Bebb – Brewer's willow
- Salix canariensis Chr. Sm.
- Salix candida Flüggé ex Willd. – sageleaf willow
- Salix caprea L. – Goat willow, pussywillow or willow
- Salix caroliniana Michx. – coastal plain willow
- Salix chaenomeloides Kimura
- Salix cinerea L. – grey willow
- Salix cordata Michx. – sand dune willow, furry willow, or heartleaf willow
- Salix delnortensis C.K.Schneid. – Del Norte willow
- Salix discolor Muhl. – American willow
- Salix drummondiana Barratt ex Hook. – Drummond's willow
- Salix eastwoodiae Cockerell ex A.Heller – Eastwood's willow, mountain willow, or Sierra willow
- Salix eleagnos Scop. - olive willow
- Salix eriocarpa
- Salix exigua Nutt. – sandbar willow, narrowleaf willow, or coyote willow
- Salix floridana
- Salix fragilis L. – Crack Willow
- Salix fuscescens - Alaska bog willow
- Salix futura
- Salix geyeriana Andersson – Geyer's willow
- Salix gilgiana Seemen
- Salix glauca L.
- Salix glaucosericea
- Salix gooddingii C. R. Ball – Goodding's willow, or Goodding's black willow
- Salix gracilistyla Miq.
- Salix hastata L.
- Salix herbacea L. – dwarf willow, least willow or snowbed willow
- Salix hookeriana Barratt ex Hook. – dune willow, coastal willow, or Hooker's willow
- Salix hultenii
- Salix integra Thunb.
- Salix interior
- Salix japonica Thunb.
- Salix jepsonii C.K.Schneid. – Jepson's willow
- Salix jessoensis Seemen
- Salix koriyanagi Kimura ex Goerz
- Salix kusanoi
- Salix laevigata Bebb – red willow or polished willow
- Salix lanata L. – woolly willow
- Salix lapponum L. - downy willow
- Salix lasiolepis Benth. – arroyo willow
- Salix lemmonii Bebb – Lemmon's willow
- Salix libani – Lebanese willow
- Salix ligulifolia C.R.Ball – strapleaf willow
- Salix lucida Muhl. – shining willow, Pacific willow, or whiplash willow
- Salix lutea Nutt. – yellow willow
- Salix magnifica Hemsl.
- Salix matsudana Koidz. – Chinese willow or twisted willow, variant Corkscrew
- Salix melanopsis Nutt. – dusky willow
- Salix miyabeana Seemen
- Salix monticola
- Salix mucronata - Cape silver willow
- Salix myrsinifolia Salisb.
- Salix myrtillifolia
- Salix myrtilloides L. – swamp willow
- Salix nakamurana
- Salix nigra Marshall – black willow
- Salix orestera C.K.Schneid. – Sierra willow or gray-leafed Sierra willow
- Salix pentandra L. – bay willow
- Salix phylicifolia L.
- Salix planifolia Pursh. – diamondleaf willow or tea-leafed willow
- Salix polaris Wahlenb. – polar willow
- Salix prolixa Andersson – MacKenzie's willow
- Salix pulchra
- Salix purpurea L. – purple willow or purple osier
- Salix reinii
- Salix reticulata L. – net-veined willow
- Salix retusa
- Salix richardsonii
- Salix rorida Lacksch.
- Salix rupifraga
- Salix schwerinii E. L. Wolf
- Salix scouleriana Barratt ex Hook. – Scouler's willow
- Salix sepulcralis group – hybrid willows
- Salix sericea Marshall – silky willow
- Salix serissaefolia
- Salix serissima (L. H. Bailey) Fernald — autumn willow or fall willow
- Salix serpyllifolia
- Salix sessilifolia Nutt. – northwest sandbar willow
- Salix shiraii
- Salix sieboldiana
- Salix sitchensis C. A. Sanson ex Bong. – Sitka willow
- Salix subfragilis
- Salix subopposita Miq.
- Salix taraikensis
- Salix tarraconensis
- Salix taxifolia Kunth – yew-leaf willow
- Salix tetrasperma Roxb. – Indian willow
- Salix triandra L. – almond willow or almond-leaved willow
- Salix udensis Trautv. & C. A. Mey.
- Salix viminalis L. – common osier
- Salix vulpina Andersson
- Salix yezoalpina Koidz.
- Salix yoshinoi
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- Aravah, the Hebrew name of the willow, for its ritual use during the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles;
- List of Lepidoptera that feed on willows
- Rhabdophaga rosaria, a willow gall;
- Willow Biomass Project;
- Willow water, using willow branches to grow roots of new cuttings - extracting biological rooting hormones indolebutyric acid and salicylic acid;
- Sail ogham letter meaning willow.
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