The Black Willow is a tree of the floodplains. All floodplains are relatively unstable environments, at least in the time spans that a geologist considers. The floodplain was once part of the riverbed and it will be again in the future. Its soils are the sands and gravel plucked from higher up on the river, then reworked and deposited down on the floodplain. And as the river shifts in its banks, these floodplain soils will again be reworked to make new floodplain further downstream.
Plants that do well on the floodplain are those adapted to this instability. And of all the trees that inhabit the floodplain, perhaps no one typifies this adaptation to the instability as well as the Black Willow, Salix nigra. The Black Willow found on the Boquet River in northern New York is found everywhere from southern New Brunswick west to southern Ontario and south as far as Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas.
Black Willow is an unusual willow. Of the more than 50 species of willow inhabiting the northeast, only four are what you could properly call trees, and of these four only the Black Willow is a native to the area, the others coming originally from Europe or Asia. In fact the Black Willow is thought to be the largest species of willow anywhere in the world. Although it is often 40 to 50 feet high with a trunk diameter of 1 to 2 feet, in the valley of the Ohio River it reaches a record of 120 feet high with a trunk diameter of 8 feet.
In addition to its size and floodplain habitat, the Black Willow can be distinguished from other willows by its dark blackish-brown bark, which is what gives it the name of Black Willow. The leaves are typically shaped willow leaves, between 3 and 6 inches long and between 1/4 and 5/8th of an inch wide. They are a slightly lustrous bright green on the upper surface and a slightly lighter green on the bottom surface. Unlike many other willows the bottom surface of the leaf is not hairy although the petiole is. The leaves have a lance shaped tip with finely toothed margins, and on at least some of the leaves the tip bends to one side to form a sickle shape. The latter character is very helpful in learning to distinguish the Black Willow from the other large willows. The twigs bearing the leaves are smooth and hairless, with a pair of conspicuous stipules at the base of each leaf. The twigs are brittle at the base and break off easily. In the spring a tiny "pussy" less than 1/8th of an inch long is a bud which will contain the male or female flower.
|The leaves of Black Willow are easy to distinguish from the other tree-sized willows. They have stipules (small leaf-like structures) at the base of each leaf and many of the leaves have a bend near the tip.|
Black Willow has no commercial value as a lumber tree. The wood is soft and weak and likely to "check". But in colonial times it was the preferred wood for making charcoal for black gunpowder.
This weakness of the wood and the brittle twigs are actually an adaptation to the opportunities life on the floodplain presents. Ice storms and wind storms knock down branches and twigs from the willow; floods also break off branches. If these branches and twigs are lucky enough to be partially buried by the river muds after the high waters deposit them, they then quickly respond by putting out dense mats of roots and becoming a new tree. In this way the parent tree clones itself and is able to rapidly colonize newly created flood plains with genetically identical copies of itself.
This ability of the Black Willow to let parts of itself break off gives the tree a characteristically disheveled appearance. The broken off branches and the many suckers and shoots that form at the break give the tree an uneven profile. Often the trunks form clumps where several trees appear to be growing out of a common ground. These are the results of suckers that form when the original trunk breaks off near the ground.
|Silhouette of the Black Willow in winter. Notice all of the broken branches. Unfortunately many north country trees look like this after the 1998 ice storm. But while most of those trees are dying, the Black Willow uses it as an opportunity to put out thousands of suckers.|
We take advantage of the ability of the Black Willow to root on newly created soils to stabilize levees and streambanks. BRASS has planted more than 250,000 willow seedlings on over 10 miles of streambanks in an attempt to control excessive erosion. BRASS has also pounded in hundreds of larger willow "posts" along streambanks and in soil beds in cribbing structures. These larger fence post size sections of willow root rapidly and help provide "instant" trees to help stabilize streambanks.
Willow also has a number of more traditional uses. The smaller flexible twigs were often used in basketry by both Native Americans and the European colonists. In times of hunger the softer inner bark, the "bast", was dried and ground into a flour. Although very bitter it provided nourishment and a source of vitamins and minerals.
In colonial times the bast was brewed into tea which was considered a specific against malaria and a poor man's alternative to quinine. The tea was also considered a good spring tonic - "good for what ails ya'". If a measure of how good it is for you is how bad it tastes, then willow bark tea must be one of the most efficacious tonics around.
Modern herbalists cite the glycosides salicin and populin contained in willow bark as a reason for recommending the same bark tea for the reduction of inflammation in joints and membranes, for treating headaches, fevers, neuralgia, and hay fever. Since the salicin and populin are excreted as aspirin-like compounds they are also considered useful for reducing bladder and urethral irritability. However, the story that before aspirin was available people used to chew willow twigs to relieve a headache appears to be just a story; however appealing it is, I've never been able to come up with a contemporary reference to the practice.