The Willow Family

Part of the Native Plant Trail


Written and narrated by Ed Miller.

The Willow Family

In the Northeast, the Willow Family includes poplars, of which NY has four native species. All are present in this grouping. They are pretty easy to tell apart. Their names are quite descriptive. Watch for the fluttering leaves of the quaking aspen, the big teeth on the leaves of the big tooth aspen, the cottony fluff that fills the air in early summer from the cottonwood tree, and the fragrance and stickiness of the balsam poplar buds.

The willows are more difficult. Most people know the weeping willow, with its early green/yellow foliage and drooping branches. It is a native of China, very pretty, but nicer on someone else’s property, as it sheds branches at a great rate. Be patient, it is the tree’s way of spreading its genes. Lots of the broken branches float down river and take root. Most people also can recognize pussy willows, usually any willow with conspicuous catkins. Unfortunately for simple identification, several willow species have showy catkins that develop before the leaves.

In the grouping before you, we have most of the native willow species and for comparison, one weeping willow tree. As you look at the labeled specimens, you will immediately note significant differences - but there are so many species that remembering which is which is difficult. Included in the mailbox is a copy of an identification key from Hank Howard’s Plants of Saratoga and Eastern NY. When the leaves are developed, this key works quite well. Willows frequently hybridize, but not so often that one must despair about learning the willows. If you find a willow with mixed characteristics, call it a hybrid and move on. On other walks, you may find some horticultural willow species and their varieties that are frequently planted and sometimes escape cultivation. One that is easy to identify is the corkscrew willow. One is planted in the horticultural area near Fred Lape’s trail. The following list details our willow collection:

Cottonwood               Populus deltoides
Big Toothed aspen    Populus grandidentia
Quaking aspen          Populus tremuloides
Balsam poplar           Populus balsamifera
Tulip “poplar”           Lirodendren tulipifera (Magnolia family)
Slender willow          Salix petiolaris
Stiff willow                S. eriocephala
Shining willow          S. lucida
Sandbar willow        S.exigua
Pussy willow             S. discolor
Black willow             S. nigra
Prairie willow           S. humilis
Silky willow              S. sericea
Bebb’s willow          S. bebbiana
Weeping willow      S. babylonica (introduced species)