Our planet is home to an amazing diversity of plant life, and willow trees, of the genus Salix, are no exception.
There is an abundance of different types of willow trees throughout the world, and as they hybridize easily with each other, it’s extremely difficult to say exactly how many there are.
How Many Varieties of Willow Trees are There?
One plant nursery with a modest selection has 14 different types, another offers 20 varieties, and botanists refer to over 300 known species of willow in existence across the planet. Some even say closer to 400. So I won’t be listing all of them here!
Which willow trees you see in your area will depend on your climate, soil, and specific location, e.g., whether or not you’re near fresh water. Willows can have straight or twisty stems, leaf colors ranging from green and pink to coppery gold or silvery green.
The stems themselves have an amazing range of color all through the rainbow. Maybe not blue, but definitely some gorgeous purples.
As willow is such a useful tree, and a beautiful one too, it’s an excellent choice of tree if your land can accommodate its needs. Willows are generally quite adaptable. They love sunshine but can handle a bit of shade, and will grow in most soils.
They do, however, prefer fertile and moist soils, and some varieties like a lot of water.
It’s usually advised that you don’t plant willow too close to buildings, structures, pipes, or drains, as their roots can grow in search of water and may cause structural damage.
Some varieties have higher water requirements than others and grow most happily near water. Some varieties — including some of the water-loving ones — are more vigorous than others, so it’s always a good idea to do plenty of research before you buy and make sure you know exactly what you’re getting.
Which Willow Tree Will You Choose?
Which willow tree to choose? You’ve certainly got plenty of options. As I can’t list all 300+ species, I’ll give you a selection of the more and less common varieties that you might encounter. Or that you might wish to seek out!
If you’re considering planting willow and you know it’s right for your climate, do some research and find a specialist willow grower in your area.
They’ll be able to help you get started and will probably have plenty of amazing varieties to show you.
Most Common Willow Trees
Identifying willow trees can be a bit of a challenge given how readily they hybridize and form new varieties. If in doubt, ask an arborist or specialist grower.
1. Osier Willow
The Osier willow (Salix viminalis) is considered the best type of willow for basket weaving. Its smooth, yellowish-green stems are very flexible and strong, and its leaves are dark green, long, and thin. Mature trees can reach 7 meters (23 feet) in height.
Like many willows, Osier willow is native to western Asia and Europe. It loves very damp areas and is often found near streams and rivers.
2. Goat Willow
The Goat willow, also known as the pussy willow (Salix caprea), can live for 300 years.
Somewhat unusually for willow trees, its leaves are oval-shaped instead of long and thin. Colored a beautiful mid-green, they’re smooth on the tops but quite hairy underneath. Goat willows can grow to 10 meters (33 feet) tall.
While the wood of the goat willow is — unusually for willows — too brittle to be used in weaving, it burns well so is often used as firewood or for charcoal. Caterpillars love the goat willow, and the tree’s catkins are much-loved by bees and other insects for the pollen and nectar they provide.
It’s also the primary plant-based source of food for the purple emperor butterfly.
It’s the male catkins of the tree that give it its alternative name of pussy willow as they look like fluffy cats’ paws.
3. Grey Willow
Sometimes also called a pussy willow although its catkins are not as round or fluffy, the grey willow (Salix cinerea subsp. oleifolia) can also attain a height of 10 meters or 33 feet.
While it too has oval-shaped leaves, unlike the goat willow, the grey willow’s leaves are elongated; their length is at least double their width. Similarly to the goat willow, the grey willow’s bark is colored a grey-brown. In time, it fissures into diamond shapes.
4. Crack Willow
Named due to the sound its brittle twigs make when they snap in the winter, the crack willow (Salix fragilis) can look a lot like the white willow. With a height of 25 meters (82 feet), it’s among the largest of willow trees.
Crack willow leaves are long and thin, with a dark green color on top and a paler green underneath. Its twigs, which are flexible when young, are a shiny yellow-brown color. Wildlife love the crack willow as they do most varieties of willow.
5. White Willow
The white willow (Salix alba) is easily confused with the crack willow and can also grow to 25 meters in height. One way to tell the two trees apart is by their leaves, which although very similar, are not quite the same.
The white willow’s leaves are quite hairy underneath and so can look silvery white, unlike those of the crack willow which are hairless.
As with all willow trees, the white willow can suffer from an infection by the bacteria Brenneria salicis. This causes a die-back of branches and red leaves elsewhere on the tree. It can be fatal if untreated.
6. Weeping Willow
There are actually a lot of different types of weeping willow. However, the one with which most people are the most familiar is the Salix babylonica. Reaching 12 meters (39 feet) in height and an equal width after somewhere between 20 and 50 years, this particular type of weeping willow is what most people imagine.
It loves very damp soils and grows best at the edges of rivers, lakes, or ponds. Its roots are considered to be aggressive in their search for hydration, so be warned!
The babylonica weeping willow has long, thin leaves that are a bright yellow-green during the spring and a darker, almost greyish green in the summer.
7. Peachleaf Willow
Scientifically known as Salix amygdaloides, the peachleaf willow is native to North America. It can grow to 12-18 meters (40-60 feet) tall, and while it’s fast-growing, it is considered to be relatively short-lived.
The leaves of the peachleaf willow are elongated but widen out just above their midpoints before tapering down to a point, and they’re dark yellowish-green in colour with paler, almost white, undersides.
While its branches don’t drop as much as those of the weeping willow, the peachleaf willow does have a slight weeping habit. Its twigs are a shiny brown or yellow-orange, and its bark is very dark and blackish in color.
Less Common Willow Trees
1. Arctic Willow
The arctic willow (Salix arctica) is, as its name implies, a willow found in arctic regions all around the Arctic Ocean. Unlike the tall willow trees that most of us know, the arctic willow is a dwarf creeping shrub.
Growing only 3-25 centimeters (1-10 inches) high, it has reddish-brown or yellowish-brown branches that may stand upright or trail along the ground.
The leaves of the arctic willow may vary in shape, but tend more toward oval or round. Often dark green above with a paler, silver-haired surface underneath, they may be brighter green and tinged with reddish-brown in certain environments.
The arctic willow’s flowers are quite beautiful, reddish-pink and bright yellow for the male flowers (catkins), and pinky-red and purple for the female catkins.
2. Bay Willow
Another willow known more as a shrub or a small tree, the bay willow (Salix penranda) will generally grow to between 5 and 7 meters (16-23 feet) in height, but can occasionally reach 17 meters (58 feet). The bay willow is a water lover, and its long leaves are a glossy dark green.
It got its name due to the fact that some people find the scent of its leaves reminiscent of the aroma of bay leaves (Laurus nobilis).
3. Purple Willow
Salix purpruea is a lovely species of willow with twigs in shades of purple, green, orangey-red, or yellow, depending on the variety.
The purple willow can grow, depending on who you ask and on the variety, from 2-8 meters (6.5-26 feet) tall, and is normally described as being a large shrub rather than a tree.
Its leaves are long and thin and bluey-green in color during the summer. A native to East Asia and some limited parts of Europe, the purple willow is often used in basket-making and for making hurdles as its stems are both flexible and strong.
4. Black Willow
The black willow’s branches dry to a beautiful dark black-purple color, and in winter its stems can look like ebony. Like some of the other willows I’ve mentioned it grows with a shrubby habit, often growing to a bit more than 3 meters (10-12 feet) in height but sometimes reaching 10 meters (33 feet) tall.
Its leaves are colored black and green when young and mature to a dark green. As with the arctic willow, the shape of the black willow’s leaves can vary and are found in forms from roundish to elliptical, oblong to oblanceolate.
Oblanceolate, in reference to botany, means shaped like a lance but in reverse, with the narrow part at the place where the leaf attaches to the stem.
5. Japanese Pink Pussy Willow
I’m including this one, Salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’ because of its lovely, fuzzy, pink and soft grey catkins.
Another shrub-type willow that may only grow to 1.5-3 meters (5-10 feet) tall, the ‘Mount Aso’ willow is named after a Japanese volcano and has green, slightly bluish leaves with silvery undersides.
6. Dark-leaved Willow
It’s thought that the black-leaved willow’s name comes from the fact that its leaves take on a blackish color when they’re dried. Known scientifically as Salix myrsinifolia, the black-leaved willow grows as a shrub or small tree and reaches heights of 2-5 meters (7-16 feet).
Its leaves are a rich, glossy green above, with a paler, almost hairless underside. A European native, it has dark, ebony colored stems which are especially striking during the winter but beautiful throughout the year.
It is important to prune the stems right down in the spring to ensure that the next winter’s stems take on the black color.
Willow or Sallow?
You might occasionally come across the term ‘sallow’ in relation to willow. Sallow trees are part of the willow (Salix) genus, and sallow is a word used to refer to the European, “Old World” species of willow.
Broad-leaved trees, some sallows have existed in Europe for many thousands of years and are thought, like birch and hazel, to be pioneer species: those that first colonized new woods after the last ice age and that are the first to return to cleared or disrupted land today.
Goat willow and grey willow are both sallow, as is the eared willow (Salix aurita) and as are other ancient European species.
As I’ve already mentioned, willow trees hybridize readily with each other.
Some species have both male and female flowers on the same plant, and some require two different plants for fertilization, but among all willow species and varieties, there’s much opportunity for the pollen of one tree to fertilize a tree of a different species, although some species hybridize more with each other than others.
Hybrids in general tend to grow more quickly than their parent plants, although they may not always.
The ease with which willows cross-fertilize can make it very difficult to identify which specific species or variety you’re looking at, as if you don’t know the provenance of a particular plant — in a woodland setting, for example — it could be a genetic mix of its neighbors.
This all makes for a marvelous variety of different willows.
Uses of Willow
From basket-making to living willow structures, wood for furniture to pain-relieving salicylic acid — aspirin is derived from the salicylic acid in the bark of all types of willow tree — willow trees provide a wealth of valuable resources.
In fact, the medicinal uses of willow extend far beyond help for headaches and back pain; it’s been used to treat parasitic skin diseases, jaundice, rheumatism, fevers, and diarrhoea, among other ailments.
And of course, willows are beautiful trees that shade the ground and offer a home to wildlife. Willow trees are also being researched for their excellent ability to clean polluted soils, especially those contaminated by heavy metals.
Why Willows are Wonderful
With so many “official” species and varieties and new hybrids being grown and developed all the time, there’s almost certainly a type of willow to suit your needs.
As with all trees, make sure that whichever willow you like best will suit your area, situation, and soil type, and then get creative!
From providing aesthetic appeal to creating a fantastic windbreak or secret den, a willow tree or multiple willow trees will be at home in almost any suitable yard or garden.
Just don’t plant them near your house.
Featured Image by Mabel Amber at Pixabay
- What Is The Difference Between Hazel and Witch Hazel?
- 13 Different Types of Willow Trees (Common & Uncommon Species)
- 15 Different Types of Oak Trees (Most Common)
- 11 Different Types of Birch Trees (& Some Surprising Uses)
Kira Nash lives with her family in the sunny French countryside amidst bees and swallows. A writer, editor, and artist by trade, she also teaches creative meditation. She’s passionate about nature and ecology and tries to live as green a life as possible. In her spare time, she surfs, reads, and plays with her cats, although not usually all at once. She loves tea a little too much.