Black Willow

Salix nigra

black_willow_salix_nigra.jpg

Illustration of black willow leaves and catkins.
Black willow, Salix nigra.
Paul Nelson
Family

Salicaceae (willows)

Description

Black willow is a medium to large-sized tree with a straight trunk and a broadly irregular, open crown when growing on productive sites.

Leaves are alternate, simple, 3–6 inches long, narrowly lance-shaped, thin, papery, finely toothed, very long-pointed and often curved toward the top.

Bark is dark brown or blackish, rough, deeply furrowed, scaly, with forking ridges.

Sapwood is gray to light tan, sometimes nearly white. Heartwood is light gray to dark or reddish brown. Wood texture is fairly uniform to a little coarse, diffusely porous; growth rings are not conspicuous.

Twigs are slender, brittle, smooth, reddish brown.

Flowers April–May, with the leaves. Male and female flowers in hairy catkins on separate trees.

Fruits May–June, in catkins about 2 inches long; capsules narrowly conical, light brown, about ¼ inch long, splitting into 2 halves. Seeds numerous, tiny, with long silky hairs at the base; seeds are carried far and wide by wind and water.

Size

Height: 70–100 feet.

Habitat and conservation

Occurs along streams, swamps, sloughs, marshes, and ponds in wet bottomland soils, but can be found throughout the state around almost any water source. A rapidly growing but short-lived tree (less than 85 years), it is one of the largest willow species in the world (it can reach 120 feet in the southern United States). Very tolerant of flooding for long periods, it also withstands being buried by sediments that accompany floods.

image of Black Willow Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide

Status

In some parts of our nation, black willow is only a shrub, but, as Donald Culross Peattie notes, "beside the Father of Waters and its mighty tributaries," this willow is "a sprawling giant of a tree." The largest and most widely known of our native willows, black willow is the only member of its family that reaches commercial size.

Human connections

Used for wicker-work furniture and basket. Does not split when nailed. Before plastics, toys were made from willow. Artificial limbs, packing cases, and some furniture parts. Warm brown tones and attractive grain make it beautiful paneling wood.

Ecosystem connections

The roots form dense networks to hold the tree in the shifting soils along waterways, so this tree does much to stabilize stream banks. Black willows are among the first trees to become established on sandbars, allowing other plants to colonize, too. Many animals eat the leaves and twigs.