Yellowstem White Willow


I remember a biology professor who would occasionally refer to a plant as a “70 mile an hour plant.” It was his way of saying a plant was easily identified, even while traveling down the highway at 70 miles an hour.

I was thinking about that recently while driving down the highway and observing a shelterbelt with a row of large trees with noticeably yellow to orange colored twigs. In the summer with the leaves on the trees, those twigs were not nearly as obvious, but in the winter they were conspicuous even to the casual observer. It was white willow, or more specifically Salix alba var. vitellina or yellowstem white willow, also called golden willow. There may be a few other species of willow in shelterbelts, the vast majority of what I observe is yellowstem white willow. It is a 70 mile an hour plant:

Yellowstem white willow is native to Eurasia but was brought to U.S. by immigrants back in the 1700’s and is now naturalized over much of its range, which includes most of North America. Here in the northern Great Plains the species has been widely planted in shelterbelts. It is not widely used as an ornamental, but it occasionally spreads from shelterbelts to become established on the margins of wetlands and other similar habitats.

Yellowstem white willow is a fast growing but short lived tree which may grow to a height of 60 feet or so under optimal conditions. The main stem often branches rather close to the ground. The leaves are alternate, lancolae, and about 2-4 inches long with serrated edges. They are rather interesting because the upper surface is a shiny green while the lower surface is a silky white. Like other members of the willow family, yellowstem white willow is dioecious which means there are separate male and female plants. Some of you can relate this to cottonwood trees. Either a cottonwood seems to never produce cotton (male plant) or produces cotton every summer (female). The cotton of course contains the seed.

The bark of willows contains salicylic acid, what we know as aspirin. So not surprisingly the bark of yellowstem white willow has been used to treat aches, pains, and fevers for milenia. I recently noticed a website selling “Salix Alba – Natural, Anti-Aging Skincare from the English Lake District.” They were selling 30 milliliters of Anti-aging moisturizing cream for 37.95 British pounds, that is about $63, but I could not find any willow on the ingredient list.

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.



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