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Wildflower of the Week - Smelling the willows

Posted by Wendell Wood at Feb 20, 2012 11:20 AM |
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When out seeking the first blooms of 2012, don’t forget to stop and “smell the willows” along the way.

Wildflower of the Week - Smelling the willows

The male Sitka Willow (photo by Wendell Wood).

Sitka Willow, Salix sitchensis

A large shrub or small tree, Sitka Willows grow from 3 to over 25 feet in height, and sometimes with stem diameters up to 12 inches.  Like other willows, Sitka Willow is dioecious
with male and female flowers that are born on separate plants in clusters called catkins.  In this species, as is the case with some other willows, the erect flowering catkins are produced just before, or as, the plant’s first leaves emerge in late winter or early spring.

As willows lack sepals and petals, often people don’t think of willow as having flowers.  However, they do have the bare essentials that characterize all flowering plants—being: stamens that bear pollen, and pistils, when mature, that bear cottony seeds.   Each flower is born at the base of a small bract--with hundreds of such tiny bracts containing the individual male or female flowers that make up each catkin.


While most willows species contain two small, anther-bearing stamens from the base of a single bract, what makes Salix sitchensis generally distinctive from other species, is that the Sitka Willow only has one stamen per basal bract.  While best viewed under low power magnification, this character can be seen (without magnification) if you focus very closely on an individual, flowering male catkin.

Also, take a sniff, as these yellow, male catkins have a mild, but pleasing perfumed scent. If you have a female plant, instead of the male pollen filled anthers, you will see dozens of small green pistils, that in this particular species (under slight magnification) are covered with a fine layer of hairs.

Ranging from Alaska to central California, Sitka Willow is found in Oregon primarily from the coast to the Cascades, but does make some isolated appearances in eastern Oregon, such as in the Wallows, with fewer sightings still in the Steens.

On our immediate coast, some Sitka willow catkins appear as early as the latter part of February (and why it’s featured this week), as it is one of the earlier blooming willow species. Even Female Sitka Willowat higher elevations, with heavy snow packs and thus later flowering seasons, it is was noted by observant botanists back in 1929 to be one of the first species to bloom near the rim at Crater Lake National Park before July 1.

The genus name, “Salix” is the ancient Latin name for “willow”.  The species epithet “sitchensis” means “of Sitka,” Alaska, near where this willow species was collected and described by Karl Heinrich Mertens in 1827.  Native people there used the wood in drying fish, particularly as its smoke was reported not to have a bad odor.   Also in Alaska, the pounded bark was also applied to heal wounds.  Historically, this and other species of willow were used by numerous western tribes for making rope, weaving clothing, and providing shredded bark for diapers.  Most notably, the stems and roots were commonly used in basketry.

In the Klamath region, as recalled in Plants and the People-The Ethnobotany of the Karuk Tribe—a branch of Salix sitchensis would be tied to the bow of a boat as a charm against danger when crossing the Klamath River in high water.  Additionally, a large thicket of Sitka willows would be beaten with a stick “to cause the wind to blow on hot days.”

For more information on willows, see the previous Oregon Wild blog post: Wildflower of the Week #7 - A Flower Without Petals - Pacific (or Shining) Willow, Salix lucida ssp. lasiandra.

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