Most children think of the weeping willow when willow trees are the subject, not realizing that many other types of willows grow in North America. Many native willow trees grow in Canada and the United States, with most having an upright form much different from the drooping branches of the weeping willow. You can teach your kids about willow trees in ways that are fun and stimulating, for you and for them.
Identifying the different types of willow trees in your area can be difficult, but with the use of field guides and online resources, you should be able to show your kids which types are which. Some of the things you can look at to try to recognize a willow tree are the length and width of the leaves, the size of the tree and its form. For example, a sandbar willow usually is never taller than 10 feet, the leaves can be 4 inches long and the bottom of the tree divides into many separate stems. The black willow grows to as high as 100 feet, has leaves that can be 5 inches long and usually has one or more wide trunks from which the branches sprout. Always pay attention to the geographic range maps that come with resources to determine what species grow near you.
An excellent place to find willow trees for your children to identify is along a waterway or in close proximity to a pond or lake. Willow trees typically grow near water, so it is possible to combine an outing that can have educational value into one that can also be fun, with other activities such as swimming or fishing involved. Making a collection of the leaves of willow trees is an activity with which you may challenge kids. Willows will actually grow from a willow branch planted in the ground; kids can easily accomplish this task and grow their own willow tree in a suitable spot on their property.
Willows and Wildlife
Many animals will eat the buds, flowers, twigs, leaves and bark of willows, providing them with a food supply. These animals include beaver, rabbits and deer. Willow trees are an important part of the diet of these creatures, especially in the winter when food is hard to locate. The flowers of willows are a major source of nectar for bees. While you may not often have an opportunity to actually watch animals eating from willows, you can show your kids where deer have browsed the twigs or where beaver have cut down willows close to the water and left the stumps.
The pussy willow can take the form of a tree or a very tall shrub. Searching for one with your children can be an enjoyable pursuit. The pussy willow is not difficult to find, since the fuzzy flowers, known as catkins, develop long before the leaves do, according to the "National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees." The catkins can emerge as early as late February or early March, giving you and your kids something to do as you search for them. Look for pussy willows in moist ground, along the edges of streams and ponds. Many will grow in damp soil in forests where pines, hemlock and spruce trees are abundant. Kids will enjoy presenting their parents with a branch of the attractive pussy willow catkins.
One of the most important uses for willows is the prevention of erosion. The tree's root system holds dirt in place and is a valuable asset along streams and rivers prone to flooding. You can show your kids examples of willows holding areas of a shore or riverbank together such as the sandbar willow, a species that occurs from Alaska to Ontario and as far south as parts of New Mexico. To identify this willow tree, look for narrow leaves on the limbs, only a ¼ to ½ inch wide, with a yellow green color and as long as 6 inches. Sandbar willow will usually grow in dense clusters of many trees along a river or stream.