When canoeing a river, the canoeist may encounter numerous sandbars in the river. Many of these sandbars have small trees or shrubs with small, narrow, silvery leaves. Those woody plants are probably Sandbar Willows (Salix exigua Nuttall or Salix interior Rowlee), depending upon which reference is used.
Sandbar Willow is a member of the Order Mapighiales, the Family Salicaceae, and the Tribe Saliceae. The generic name, Salix, is from the Celtic word, sal-lis, which is “near water”. The first specific epithet, exigua, is “small” or “meager”, referring to its narrow leaves. The second specific epithet, interior, refers to its interior distribution upon this continent.
Other scientific names for this plant are Salix argophylla Nuttall, Salix hindsiana Bentham, Salix linearifolia E. L. Wolf, Salix longifolia Muhlenberg, Salix luteoservicea Rydberg, Salix malacophylla Nuttall ex C.R. Ball, Salix nevadensis S. Watson, Salix parishiana Rowlee, Salix rubra Richardson, and Salix wheeleri (Rowlee) Rydberg. Some of these names are subspecies or varieties. Other common names for this species are Basket Willow, Coyote Willow, Longleaf Willow, Narrowleaf Willow, Osier Willow, Pink-barked Willow, Red Willow, River-bank Willow, Shrub Willow, Slenderleaf Willow, and White Willow.
Sandbars Willows are drought resistant. They are a fast-growing and a short-lived plant.
DESCRIPTION OF THE SANDBAR WILLOW
Height: Its height is about 3-25 feet. A few have reached 50 feet. It is usually much shorter. It is an upright plant.
Diameter: Its diameter about 2-6 inches. It is a slender plant.
Crown: Its crown is rounded and irregular. Its branches are thin and spreading.
Trunk: Its trunk is straight and slender. It may have 1 or many trunks.
Twigs: Its twigs are upright, slender, flexible, and may or may not be hairy. They may have a white, waxy coating. When young, they are light to dark orange or purplish red. When older, they become dark brown. They are not brittle. Each bud scar is U- or V- shaped and has 3 vein scars. White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus Zimmermann), American Beavers (Castor canadensis Kuhl), Eastern Cottontail Rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus J.A. Allen), and Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus L.) eat these twigs.
Buds: Its lateral buds are about 1/8 inches long, oblong, pointed, flattened, pale brown, and pressed against the twig. Each bud has only 1 hood-like bud scale. There are no true end buds.
Leaves: Its leaves are deciduous, simple, and alternate. Each leaf is about 1½-6 inches long, about ¼-¾ inches wide, narrow, and uniformly lanceolate. It has a long-pointed tip and a tapered base. These leaves are dark green, gray-green, or yellow-green above; paler below; and are hairless or silvery-silky. Its margins are toothless or are widely and unevenly spaced with small, sharp, glandular-tipped teeth. It has a prominent yellow midrib. Its petioles are about 1/8-1/4 inches long. Its 2 leafy stipules are small or are non-existent. These leaves turn yellow in the fall. White-tailed Deer and Livestock eat these leaves. These leaves contain phenolic glycosides, which are toxic to many Insect (Class Insecta) species.
Flowers: Its flowers are dioecious with male and female flowers upon separate trees. The flowers are arranged in cylindrical catkins with hairy yellow scales. These flowers have no calyx or corolla. The male flowers are yellow, about ¾-4 inches long, about ¼-¾ inches wide, semi-erect, and angle from the twig. Each male flower has 2 protruding stamens. The female flowers are yellow-green, about 2-3 inches long, about ¼ inches wide, and are usually erect. Each female flower has 1 short, narrow, pointed pistil. Flowering season is April to June. They have the longest flowering period of any Willow species.
These flowers are insect-pollinated. They are pollinated by Bees (Superfamily Apoidea), especially Bumblebees (Genus Bombus) and Honeybees (Genus Apis), and by Flies (Order Diptera).
Fruits: Its fruits are capsules or pods that are arranged upon ¾-2¼ inch long, dropping catkins. Each capsule is about ¼ inches long, lanceolate, light brown, short-stalked, silky hairy when young, and hairless when mature. It splits in half to release many small seeds. Ducks (Family Anatidae) and Squirrels (Family Sciuridae) eat these fruits.
Seeds: Its seeds are tipped with a tuff of long, shiny, white, silky hairs. These hairs are about 3-4 times the length of the seed itself. These seeds are dispersed by wind and by water. They can germinate within a few hours if they land upon moist or damp soil. If not, these seeds may lose their viability within a month. A good seed crop is produced nearly every year.
Bark: Its young bark is green to gray-brown, smooth, and has raised lenticels. Its older bark is furrowed and ridged with thin, closely flattened scales. It is also gray to dark brown with a reddish tinge. Eastern Cottontail Rabbits, Muskrats, American Beavers, and White-tailed Deer gnaw upon the bark.
Wood: Its wood is soft, light, weak, tough, brittle, straight-grained, close-grained, diffuse-porous, and odorless. Its heartwood is light brown and its sapwood is thin and pale creamy brown. Its annual growth rings are indistinct.
Roots: Its roots are shallow, spreading, and fibrous. Its rhizomes and stolons send up shoots which form large, dense thickets. It is the only Midwestern shrub Willow that spreads by roots.
Habitat: Its habitats consist of stream sandbars; alluvial stream banks; floodplains; and margins of lakes, ponds, oxbows, and sloughs. These plants are often found in pure dense stands. They are a pioneer succession plant species and are shade intolerant.
Many species of Birds (Class Aves) nest in these dense stands. Some of them include American Goldfinches (Carduelis tristis L.), Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis L.), and Northern Harriers (Circus cyaneus L.).
Range: Its range consists of much of Canada, parts of Alaska, the north central and the northeastern U.S., and parts of the southwestern U.S. They are not found in the southeastern U.S. They have the largest range of any Willow in North America.
Edible Uses of the Sandbar Willow:
Sandbar Willows have some edible uses. Its inner bark can be harvested, dried, ground, and used as a flour substitute. The leaf shoots and young catkins can also be eaten raw or cooked for 10 minutes. However, they all have a bad taste and should be used only as emergency food. To remove the bitter taste, these edible parts should be boiled in several changes of water. The leaves also contain vitamin C.
Medicinal Uses of the Sandbar Willow:
Sandbar Willows have some medicinal uses. Willow bark and leaves contains the glucoside salicin, which was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia (1882-1926). When consumed, salicin decomposes and ferments into salicylic acid and glucose. This can be used as a febrifuge, an anodyne, and an analgesic.
Sandbar Willows also contain methyl salicylate, which is toxic. Chemists have converted this toxic chemical into acetylsalicylic acid, which is aspirin.
The bark or twigs were harvested by stripping them in the early spring and allowing them to dry. About 1 tablespoon of these bark strips or twigs were boiled in 1 cup of water for 10-15 minutes and drank as tea. Persons sensitive to aspirin should not consume this tea.
The bark was also used as an antiseptic. It was used as a poultice or a wash for scratches and wounds. The bark also deters bacterial, fungi, and insects.
Other Uses of the Sandbar Willow:
Sandbar Willows had other uses, too. Both the Native Americans and the early European settlers had uses for this plant
Its wood is shock-resistant and was made into sports equipment, bows, and snowshoes. The wood was too wet to be used for firewood but was made into charcoal and was used for smoking meat and fish.
The bark fibers were used for making baskets, blankets, and clothing. The bark also contains tannin and was used for tanning leather.
The downy seeds were used for stuffing clothing and pillows.
The twigs were used in basketry. The tips of the twigs were sometimes chewed to separate the fibers. The tip was then used as a toothbrush.
These roots bind the soil and help prevent soil erosion along streams. However, it should not be used for wetland restoration. Aside from preventing soil erosion, this plant benefits fish by shading the water and attracting edible Insects.
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