The many native species of willow can be quite hard to distinguish from one another, especially since they can hybridize. Some are small shrubs, while others look more like single-stemmed trees, yet they are usually easily identified as a type of willow. Leaves are generally long, fine-toothed ovals, darker green above than below. Twigs are often highly coloured. It is the buds that usually identify willows. Although some are fat and pointed while others are narrow and rounded, and colours range from black to brilliant yellows and oranges, they generally sit flat to the stem, like a fingernail on a finger. Flowers of both sexes appear as fuzzy catkins (the most notable is the flower of the pussy willow).
Willows thrive wherever there is an abundance of water – along streams and riverbanks, the edges of bogs and ponds, and in areas with a high water table. But these common shrubs are versatile and can be found in roadside ditches, abandoned fields and existing windbreaks. They achieve best growth in deep, rich soil with full sun and adequate moisture. Willows are hardy shrubs that tolerate salt spray, although they grow poorly in shaded conditions.
This is a very easy plant to grow from cuttings. Source material is available almost everywhere, especially along ditches where they are continuously cut down. Both winter or summer cuttings work well, with or without using commercial rooting hormone. For larger transplants, make cuttings in the summer and plant in a nursery bed when roots are established. Plants easily grow more than 1 foot (30 cm) per year. Smaller rooted cuttings are useful in stream plantings, enabling you to put in large numbers of plants with little soil disturbance. Cuttings can also be taken in the spring and stuck right in the ground where you would like the plants to grow, although you need moist, protected conditions and can expect less success. Along eroded stream-banks, use cuttings up to 3 feet (90 cm) long if the soil is loose enough. Leave only a few buds showing. This allows more roots to form deeper in the soil and helps bind the stream-bank together. Whenever taking cuttings, it is wise to select material from a variety of plants and areas, so that you are not relying on a narrow base of parent stock.
Willow buds are second only to the buds of poplars as preferred food of ruffed grouse. Beaver (below), muskrat, red squirrel, and snowshoe hare all include willow in their diet. The leaves are rich in Vitamin C and zinc. Pussy willows are an important nesting site for American goldfinch, while other songbirds use them to a lesser degree. The cover and protection thickets of willow provide are probably of equal importance to wildlife as its food value.
Areas of Usage:
One of the best plants for stabilizing lightly-shaded stream-banks, or areas with fluctuating water levels such as borrow pits. Willows can attract beaver if the habitat is suitable, which may or may not be desirable. Nevertheless, they are excellent plants for wet sites. They are also useful in wild landscape gardens, since many have particularly attractive twigs and buds. Try to find varieties of particularly pleasing form and colour. Willows are suitable as a low cover in windbreaks as long as the site is not too dry.
The Willows comprise a large and distinctive genus of deciduous shrubs and trees, 75 of which are found in North American. The more common ones in PEI do not reach tree size but are merely shrubs. Some of these commonly named ones include; shining willow, heart-leaved willow, bog willow, pussy willow, beaked willow, and humble willow. Two distinguishing characteristics of the willows are their bitter bark and their winter buds which have a single cap-line scale. The winter buds, in most species are long, narrow and pointed and have the appearance of being pressed against the side of the twig, The slender, often brittle twigs are usually highly colored. The leaves are alternate, simple, usually fine toothed, mostly long, narrow and pointed at both ends, usually smooth and dark green above, paler and covered with a fine down or a whitish bloom underneath. The male and female flowers are boune in uni-sexual catkins on different plants, appearing in the spring before or with the leaves. The fruit is a small capsule about 1/4 of an inch long and matures in early summer about the same time as the leaves reach their full size. The seed, shed at maturity, is very small, light and tufted and can be carried long distances by wind. The wood in all species is similar. It is light and soft, but the possesses considerable toughness and shock-resistance for its weight. The wood is of little economic importance in Canada.