Most folks are familiar with weeping willow, which is a popular landscape tree from China. But we do have a native willow in our area called black willow (Salix nigra), and is very common along stream and riverbanks.
Black willow has long, thin branches that bow over like weeping, but it’s not as pronounced. The leaves are also similar, having a long, narrow spear shape with a fine-toothed edge and short stem. The bark is brown and forms braided ridges. Usually the tree is found along a stream or pond growing in a clump of 3 or more trunks all leaning over the water. It is referred to as a “riparian” species, meaning it is often found adjacent to water.
Willow has been used as a medicinal plant for hundreds of years. The inner bark contains salicylic acid, a precursor to acetylsalicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin.
The bark and root of black willow is very bitter and has been used as an ingredient for spring tonics to “purge the blood”. The bark has also been used in a tea to break a fever, and as a poultice to treat cuts. The tree can grow large enough to be cut for timber, but the wood is lightweight and weak. Its curved branches are often used to make wicker and rustic furniture. Native Americans used the slender twigs for basketry. The young twigs and foliage are browsed by deer and beaver.
While not commercially important, the Black willow provides a service that is worth millions of dollars by simply growing in its natural environment and keeping stream banks stable. The tree has a large, fibrous root system that can keep soil from washing away during floods. Conservation organizations like TVA and the Nature Conservancy often plant willow to stop erosion problems. It is incredibly easy to plant, as all you have to do is drive sticks cut from branches in the ground and stand back.