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This ten-foot, multi-stemmed shrub thrives in a wide range of moist to wet conditions, and it plays an important role in stabilizing soils, protecting aquatic environments, and providing wildlife habitat. Willows also host a huge number of caterpillars, which provides a much-needed food source for baby birds. Bebb’s willow usually takes on a narrow, columnar form and has distinctively reddish-brown branches and leathery, heavily veined leaves that persist until October. Male and female catkins appear on separate plants (dioecious) in April, just before or during leaf emergence, and provide early-season nectar and pollen for native flies and bees. Another common name, long-beaked willow, describes the spiky shape of the female flowers. In the wild, Bebb’s willow is found both as an individual plant and in dense stands in shrubby wetlands. Its shallow root system establishes quickly and spreads reliably; like others in its genus, Bebb’s grows rapidly but has a shorter lifespan than some tree species. Less commonly, the plant forms a single trunk that grows up to 25 feet tall. It prefers full sun but also does well in part shade. Occasionally, it’s found under the shade of trees in poor soils. Its status is under review in Ohio, but the native range of Bebb’s willow is Alaska, Canada, and the northeastern and upper midwest of the US. This species was named in honor of Michael Schuck Bebb (1833-1895), an American willows specialist.

 

Also known as diamond willow, Bebb’s willow is a common and important source of “diamond willow” wood, which refers to a pattern of depressions and colors that form on the wood of particular species. The patterns are caused by fungi that attack willows at the junction of a branch and the main stem. When the stems are carved, the wood reveals diamond-shaped cavities and a striking contrast between the red heartwood and white sapwood. If one stem in a clump of willow is affected, then all of them are likely to be. However, the neighboring clump may be completely without diamonds (https://tinyurl.com/57v3wz4c). Woodworkers have long used the stunning wood to make canes, candleholders, lamp posts, and furniture.

 

Bebb’s willow looks very similar to pussy willow (Salix discolor), which often grows nearby and has a similar height and form. However, Bebb’s willow leaves are hairy, leathery, and strongly venated, whereas pussy willow leaves are smooth and waxy.

 

Native habitats include swamps and wetlands, lakes, borders of streams, wet meadows and ditches, disturbed habitats, and open woods. Use in buffer plantings, along stream banks and ponds, and in moist areas of the landscape.

 

Plant Characteristics:

Grows 10-25’ tall.

 

Prefers full or part sun.

 

Grows in a wide variety of moist to wet soils. Tolerant of drought and poor conditions but not of extremely alkaline conditions.

 

Blooms April-May. Male catkins are up to 1” long with densely packed flowers and yellow-tipped stamens. Female catkins are up to 2 ¼” long with loosely arranged flowers on slender stalks. The flowers have a bulbous base and long beak. Greenish-yellow fruits are long-beaked, slightly hairy, and 6-8 ml long. They split in half to release a cottony seed for wind dispersal mid-May to early July.

 

Alternate, elliptical to obovate leaves are 1-3” long with pointed tips and smooth to slightly serrated margins. They are hairy and veined when young, becoming smoother and strongly veined when mature. Upper surface is dark green and lower surface is pale gray green. A pair of small, jagged appendages (stipules) grows at the base of mature leaves.

 

Trunk is typically multi-stemmed but sometimes occurs as a single trunk over 8” in diameter. Bark is thin with shallow fissures and ranges in color from reddish to olive green to gray (another common name is smooth gray willow). Roots are shallow and dense.

 

Wildlife Value:

Host plant for over 400 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including mourning cloak, viceroy, great leopard moth, and specialist connected dagger moth. Deer and rabbits browse the plant, and the buds, shoots, and catkins are eaten by birds, beavers, and small mammals.

 

Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:

In the time of Hippocrates, willow bark was chewed to relieve inflammation and fever and is still in use today in some parts of the world for headaches and other types of pain. Salicin, a phytochemical found naturally in willow bark, was used in the 1800’s to develop aspirin and is thought to be responsible for its pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects. Slower to act than aspirin, its effects are reported to last longer.

 

A decoction of the branches was taken by women after childbirth to increase blood flow, and poultices were used to treat bleeding wounds and broken bones (www.plants.usda.gov).

 

The bark and leaves are considered to be emergency food; they are edible but not tasty. 

 

The hard, patterned wood is prized for small and large ornamental projects and is also used to make baskets, baseball bats, charcoal, and gunpowder.

Willow, Bebb's, Salix bebbiana

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