Black Willow Tree (Salix nigra)

Height: Ranges from 40 to 80 feet; very rarely, it’ll approach 150 feet

Evergreen/Deciduous: Deciduous

Lifespan: Short-lived, fast-growing tree; rarely longer than 50 years

Fall Foliage: Unimpressive yellow  

Range:  The eastern United States, from northern Florida to Maine and east into Texas and portions of the Great Plains

Typical Habitat: Anywhere with plenty of soil moisture and sun, especially near streams, lakes or wetlands  

The Black Willow: Live Fast and Leave a Mangled Corpse   

Black willows are adaptable trees, which can thrive in a variety of sites, provided enough moisture is present (they are not drought tolerant). However, they’re best suited for their preferred wild habitats, which is generally along the banks of streams and rivers or surrounding lakes or wetlands.

In fact, several of the species’ adaptations make them specifically well-suited for these habitats. For example, they produced dense, mat-like root systems, which help them to stabilize the riverbanks they often grow on and provide plenty of opportunities for the trees to send up new shoots a few feet away from the parent stem.

Black willows also grow quickly, in part, by producing fairly weak wood. This makes evolutionary sense – after all, the trees don’t live very long and inhabit rapidly changing, exposed habitats, which means it doesn’t make a lot of sense to invest heavily into their wood. This often means that by the time a black willow has reached large size, it has typically lost several large branches (or portions thereof) due to storm damage.

Black Willow Identification: Tips & Tricks

Black willows are usually easy to identify, though some other willow species (Salix sp.) may cause some challenges.

Like most willows, the black willow has long, elliptical leaves. They have finely serrated edges and lack bristle tips, which makes it easy to distinguish them from oaks with elliptical leaves, such as the willow oak (Quercus phellos), and wax myrtles (Myrica cerifera), which often bear a handful of large spikes around the edge.

But again, once you’ve seen a black willow or two, habitat (damp, sunny areas), growth habit (often gnarled and misshapen in older specimens), and bark (dark and furrowed or shaggy), often provide all the clues you need.

The Black Willow: Additional Information

The black willow is certainly an interesting species, so we encourage you to check out some of these great resources to learn more:

  • U.S. Forest Service: A detailed guide to the species, covering everything from natural range to genetic information.
  • North Carolina State Extension: A basic, but thorough resource on black willows, including horticultural notes.
  • Illinois Wildflowers: An always-interesting source, which provides info on the black willow via a distinctive voice and point of view.   

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