Botanical Name: Salix species
There are in excess of 40 species of willow growing in the Yukon, ranging from tall multi stemmed shrubs to prostrate ground hugging forms. The leaves on most of them are long and narrow. All willows produce catkins or pussy willows, which are actually classed as flowers, even though they do not have petals. The catkins are produced in late winter, but some are produced in the fall and remain protected under a sheath until the weather warms up, well before the leaves open. Cottony white seeds follow from the ripened catkins.
Willows love water, and grow in and near water. In the Yukon they grow virtually anywhere, even surviving in the treeless tundra areas.
The name could be derived from the Celtic word sal meaning near and lis meaning water.
The use of willow to treat pain dates back to Greece over 2400 years ago. It has also been used for poles for housing in wet areas, and divining rods used to find water.
Twigs have been traditionally been chewed on to relieve tooth ache and sores in the mouth. Teas from the leaves and root were drunk to cure headaches and to reduce fevers. A poultice from the bark was applied externally to relieve pain.
A wash from the leaves was used to bathe skin infections and the chewed leaves were applied to stings.
The catkins on some species can exceed 6 inches in length and are the principal food source for many animals. Moose, caribou and musk oxen browse on the catkins and twigs where they receive nourishment from the buds. You will see plenty examples of browsed willow as you travel the Alaska Highway. Catkin buds are a staple food for grouse and ptarmigan also. Willow bark is grazed on by hares also.
We are regularly asked about the bark damage a foot or so from the bottom of tree trunks. It will invariably be hare damage from the winter. You must remember that the snow is deep, so the hares graze at what is then ground level, and as the snow melts the damage is to be seen mid-way up the trunk.
Willow is commonly used in basket and furniture making. Charcoal from the burnt twigs is used by artists.
Research is currently taking place on its use to rebuild bone marrow after damage caused by chemo therapy.
It is one of the ingredients used for leukemia drugs.
Willows are widely used in land reclamation. Their roots stabilises wet soils and this helps stop the erosion of the banks of rivers and streams.
It was as early as the 1800’s that salicin was discovered in willow bark. It was not till the 1900’s that salicin was chemically created, and is now known as aspirin.
Some people find chemically produced aspirin an irritant and it has caused poisoning. Natural willow bark has never produced these side effects.