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Swallow-tailed Willow Salix alba

Other Common Name(s):

Previously known as:

  • Argorips alba
  • Salix pallida
Phonetic Spelling
SA-liks AL-ba
Description

The white willow is a medium to large size, fast-growing, deciduous tree that has a weeping or rounded habit and can reach a height of 50 to 70 feet. In the spring, this plant has male and female flowering catkins that appear on separate trees. The male catkins are up to 2 inches long and have tiny yellow flowers. The female catkin is smaller with greenish flowers. The lanceolate leaves are medium to dark green on the upper surface and silky white underneath. The bark is yellowish-brown. This tree is a member of the Salix or willow family. 

White willow is a native of Europe, North Africa, and Central Asia. It was brought to the United States in the 1700s and has become naturalized. This weeping tree is found growing along stream banks, lakeshores, floodplains, wetlands, or other wet sites. 

The genus name, Salix, is the Latin name for this tree. The species name, alba, means white. The common name, white willow, references the white hairs that color the undersides of the leaves.  

White willow thrives in moisture-rich soil and full sun to partial shade. It is tolerant of most moist, well-drained soil types, but it is intolerant to dry soils. Pruning may be done in the late winter or early spring. The wood is weak and brittle, and it is easily damaged by wind, snow, or ice. The tree also litters the grounds with leaves, twigs, and branches that require clean-up.

White willow can be propagated by softwood cuttings in early summer or hardwood cuttings during the winter. Small mammals like to feed on the leaves and catkins while songbirds use the twigs for nesting. Insects pollinate the flowers.

White willow may be used in the landscape but is not recommended as a street tree. It creates excessive litter, and the roots system can disturb drainage systems or concrete. It is best used in larger landscapes along streams, ponds, or excessively wet areas. The cultivars are available with a weeping habit or showy colored twigs for added winter interest.

Seasons of Interest:

Bloom: Spring,    Foliage:  Spring, Summer, and Fall

Quick ID Hints:

  • weeping or rounded habit
  • yellowish-brown bark, yellowish-green stems
  • narrow, lanceolate medium to dark green leaves with white silky undersides, and serrate margins
  • fall leaf color is pale yellow to yellow
  • male catkins and female catkins are on separate trees
  • male catkins, up to 2 inches long with tiny yellow flowers
  • female catkin, smaller, and tiny greenish flowers

Insects, Diseases, and Other Plant Problems:  White willow can attract aphids, flea beetles, sawfly larvae, willow scale, borers, lace bugs, and caterpillars. It is susceptible to anthracnose, rust diseases, crown gall, root rot, honey fungus, powdery mildew, leaf spots, cankers, and blights. This tree has very shallow roots that can pose a problem in residential areas because of interference with drainage systems. 

VIDEO created by Grant L. Thompson for “Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines for Landscaping” a plant identification course offered by the Department of Horticulture at Iowa State University.

 

 

Profile Video:
See this plant in the following landscape:
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • 'Caerulea' Cricket Bat Willow
    Fast-growing, larger blue-green leaves
  • 'Chermesina' Redstem Willow
    Bark reddish-orange, then yellowish-brown
  • 'Sericea' Siberian White Willow
    Silver gray hair leaves
  • 'Tristis' Weeping Golden Willow
    Weeping habit, pendulous golden branchlets
  • 'Vitellina' Golden Willow
    Golden-yellow shoots for 1 to 2 years, then brown
'Caerulea' Cricket Bat Willow, 'Chermesina' Redstem Willow, 'Sericea' Siberian White Willow, 'Tristis' Weeping Golden Willow, 'Vitellina' Golden Willow
Tags:
#cultivars#deciduous#rain garden#riparian#cottage garden#wetlands#high maintenance#stream banks#fast growing#multistemmed#dioecious#catkins#weak wood#hairy leaves#spring interest#deciduous tree#gray-green leaves#pond edge#FACW#fall color yellow#wet soils tolerant#erect#landscape plant sleuths course
 
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • 'Caerulea' Cricket Bat Willow
    Fast-growing, larger blue-green leaves
  • 'Chermesina' Redstem Willow
    Bark reddish-orange, then yellowish-brown
  • 'Sericea' Siberian White Willow
    Silver gray hair leaves
  • 'Tristis' Weeping Golden Willow
    Weeping habit, pendulous golden branchlets
  • 'Vitellina' Golden Willow
    Golden-yellow shoots for 1 to 2 years, then brown
'Caerulea' Cricket Bat Willow, 'Chermesina' Redstem Willow, 'Sericea' Siberian White Willow, 'Tristis' Weeping Golden Willow, 'Vitellina' Golden Willow
Tags:
#cultivars#deciduous#rain garden#riparian#cottage garden#wetlands#high maintenance#stream banks#fast growing#multistemmed#dioecious#catkins#weak wood#hairy leaves#spring interest#deciduous tree#gray-green leaves#pond edge#FACW#fall color yellow#wet soils tolerant#erect#landscape plant sleuths course
  • Attributes:
    Genus:
    Salix
    Species:
    alba
    Family:
    Salicaceae
    Uses (Ethnobotany):
    The wood has been used to make pallets, crates, baskets, and carving. European and early American settlers used an extract from the tree to treat fever, pain, and gout.
    Life Cycle:
    Woody
    Recommended Propagation Strategy:
    Stem Cutting
    Country Or Region Of Origin:
    Europe, North Africia, and Central Asia
    Distribution:
    Native: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Austria, Baltic States, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Central European Russia, China North-Central, Cyprus, Czechoslovakia, East European Russia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungry, Inner Mongolia, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Kazakhstan, Krym, Lebanon-Syria, Morocco, Netherlands, Palestine, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Sicily, South European Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Tibet, Trans Caucasus, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, West Siberia, Xinjiang, and Yugoslavia. Distribution: Argentina, Canada--New Brunswick, Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, & Victoria, South Australia, Sweden, Tasmania, Chile, Denmark, Finland, Great Britain, Ireland, Libya, New South Wales, North and Northwest European Russia, Pakistan, U.S.A.--AZ, AR, CA CO, CT, DE, DC, GA. ID, IL, IN, KY, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MO, MT, NE, NV, NH, NY, NC, OH, PA, RI, TN, VT, VA, WV, & WS, West Himalaya, and Yemen.
    Wildlife Value:
    Insects pollinate the flowers. Buds and twigs are used by songbirds. Small mammals feed on the leaves and catkins. Larger mammals feed on the twigs and foliage.
    Play Value:
    Wildlife Cover/Habitat
    Wildlife Food Source
    Dimensions:
    Height: 50 ft. 0 in. - 70 ft. 0 in.
    Width: 40 ft. 0 in. - 70 ft. 0 in.
  • Whole Plant Traits:
    Plant Type:
    Tree
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Deciduous
    Habit/Form:
    Erect
    Multi-stemmed
    Rounded
    Weeping
    Growth Rate:
    Rapid
    Maintenance:
    High
  • Cultural Conditions:
    Light:
    Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
    Partial Shade (Direct sunlight only part of the day, 2-6 hours)
    Soil Texture:
    Clay
    Loam (Silt)
    Sand
    Soil pH:
    Acid (<6.0)
    Alkaline (>8.0)
    Neutral (6.0-8.0)
    Soil Drainage:
    Good Drainage
    Moist
    Occasional Flooding
    Occasionally Wet
    Available Space To Plant:
    more than 60 feet
    NC Region:
    Coastal
    Mountains
    Piedmont
    USDA Plant Hardiness Zone:
    2a, 2b, 3a, 3b, 4b, 4a, 5b, 5a, 6b, 6a, 7b, 7a, 8a, 8b, 9b, 9a
  • Fruit:
    Display/Harvest Time:
    Fall
    Summer
    Fruit Type:
    Capsule
    Fruit Description:
    The female catkin matures by mid-summer and has a two-valve capsule containing numerous tiny seeds with silky hairs. These seeds are easily dispersed by the wind.
  • Flowers:
    Flower Color:
    Gold/Yellow
    Green
    Flower Inflorescence:
    Catkin
    Flower Value To Gardener:
    Showy
    Flower Bloom Time:
    Spring
    Flower Size:
    1-3 inches
    Flower Description:
    The blooms are male and female catkins that appear on separate trees in April to May. The male catkin is up to 2 inches long with tiny flowers and yellow anthers. The female catkin measures up to 1.5 inches and has greenish flowers.
  • Leaves:
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Deciduous
    Leaf Color:
    Green
    White
    Deciduous Leaf Fall Color:
    Gold/Yellow
    Leaf Type:
    Simple
    Leaf Arrangement:
    Alternate
    Leaf Shape:
    Lanceolate
    Leaf Margin:
    Serrate
    Hairs Present:
    Yes
    Leaf Length:
    3-6 inches
    Leaf Width:
    < 1 inch
    Leaf Description:
    The leaves are 1.5 to 4 inches long, up to 5/8 inches wide, lanceolate, tapering, and simple leaves with serrate margins. They have an alternate pattern, medium to dark green, and the undersides are white and silky. The downy hairs make the undersides appear white.
  • Bark:
    Bark Color:
    Light Brown
    Surface/Attachment:
    Ridges
    Bark Description:
    The bark is yellowish-brown. corky, and ridged.
  • Stem:
    Stem Color:
    Gold/Yellow
    Green
    Stem Is Aromatic:
    No
    Stem Surface:
    Smooth (glabrous)
    Stem Description:
    The young stems are yellowish-green. With maturity, they become smooth shiny, or dull. The buds are rounded.
  • Landscape:
    Landscape Location:
    Pond
    Riparian
    Landscape Theme:
    Cottage Garden
    Rain Garden
    Design Feature:
    Specimen
    Attracts:
    Small Mammals
    Songbirds
    Resistance To Challenges:
    Black Walnut
    Deer
    Erosion
    Wet Soil
    Problems:
    Frequent Disease Problems
    Frequent Insect Problems
    Messy
    Weak Wood