Plant of the month for August 2016

Versatile pioneer shrub with a characteristic landscape element.

Salix alba, white willow, silver willow


The basic willow shapes the landscape especially in the Netherlands. It is commonly found on the banks of streams and in flood areas of large rivers and streams, with specimens of the silver willow often being large and having gnarled branches. The name refers to the silvery appearance of the long and slender leaves. It is one of the few tree-shaped willows and was tree of the year in 1999. The word willow comes from the Proto-Germanic and means as much as to turn, roll. The tree is common throughout Central Europe and depend on regular flooding and contribute to other types of softwood lumber to ease flooding and to stabilise the banks. The willow can limit erosion thanks to its wide root system. Salix alba is also common as a pioneer plant in secondary spots such as ditches, banks of residual waters or former sampling points for sand, gravel, clay and loam. The White willow can also be used in landscaping for recultivating arable land (soil improvement) or serve as protection from the wind. As a deciduous tree, the white willow can achieve a height of up to 25 metres, only growing as a shrub in exception cases. Humans recognised the willow’s high capacity to produce shoots. For example, in Germany, the silver and basket willow were preferably kept as “pollard widows” and were cut back to the trunk each year. The long sprouting whips were used in all kinds of basketry, especially to make baskets or found use in various binding operations right through to shoelaces for poor people. In the juvenile stage, the growth of annual shoots can reach up to 2 metres. Even in the Stone Age, women discovered the healing effects of willow bark without knowing anything about their ingredients. The bark which contains salicin, was known in the ancient civilizations of India, the Southwest Asia and Mesopotamia as a drug for reducing fever and relieving pain. In later times, knowledge about the healing effects of willow, was preserved primarily by healers in monasteries and passed on. The pollarded trees provide valuable nest spruce for species that nest in cave and niches. Beavers build their dams mostly near willows and use them as a food source. Salix alba is suitable for parks, as an individual shrubs or for planting in groups. The branches take root easily when in contact with the ground and establish a very strong vegetative ability to reproduce.