Prairie Willow (Humilis)

The Prairie Willow (Humilis) is generally described as a perennial shrub. This is native to the U.S. (United States) has its most active growth period in the spring and summer . The greatest bloom is usually observed in the spring, with fruit and seed production starting in the summer and continuing until summer. Leaves are not retained year to year. The Prairie Willow (Humilis) has a moderate life span relative to most other plant species and a rapid growth rate. At maturity, the typical Prairie Willow (Humilis) will reach up to 10 feet high, with a maximum height at 20 years of 10 feet.

The Prairie Willow (Humilis) is not commonly available from nurseries, garden stores and other plant dealers and distributors. It can be propagated by bare root, container, cuttings. It has a slow ability to spread through seed production and the seedlings have low vigor. Note that cold stratification is not required for seed germination and the plant cannot survive exposure to temperatures below -43°F. has low tolerance to drought and restricted water conditions.

Uses of : Landscaping, Medicinal, Culinary, etc.

Willows were used for making dye, furniture, mats, baskets, drums, stirrups, tipi pegs and pins, fox and fish traps, hunting lodge poles, and meat-drying racks (Kindscher 1992). Willows were and still are used for baskets throughout their range. The Paiute, Ute, Shoshone, Hopi, Havasupai, Mandan, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and others use Salix lucida for basketweaving (James 1972, Mason 1988).

Kelly Kindscher(1992) wrote in Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie: The Blackfeet made a tea from the fresh root of Salix species to treat internal hemorrhage, throat constrictions, swollen neck glands, and bloodshot or irritated eyes. The twigs were also gathered and preserved. Steeped in boiling water, they were made into a tea to cure fever or alleviate pain.

Salix species were used as chew sticks to clean teeth by many other Indian tribes, including the Choctaw, Delaware, and Cheyenne. The prairie willow was favored by the Osage, Delaware, and Cherokee for this purpose (Elvin-Lewis 1979). The Kiowa made a tea of willow leaves, which they rubbed on the body to cure pneumonia and relieve rheumatic aches. They also chewed the bark to relieve toothaches (Vestal and Shultes 1939). The Comanche burned the stems of the willow and used the ashes to treat sore eyes (Carlson and Jones 1939). To restore themselves both physically and mentally, the Dakota drank a willow-bark tea (Andros 1883). The Ojibwe used prairie willow bark externally to treat skin rashes.

Aspirin is the pharmaceutical equivalent of willow bark tea, which is an effective remedy for headache, fever or sore throat. More than 2,400 years ago, the Greeks learned to use extracts of several native willow species to treat pain, gout, and other illnesses. In more recent times, in 1839, salicylic acid was isolated from wild plants and manufactured synthetically. Early salicylic acid-based products had unpleasant side effects. Sixty years later, the Bayer Company developed a derivative of salicylic acid, called it aspirin, and the rest is history.

Tea made from willow leaves will cure laryngitis. Willow reduces inflammation of joints and membranes (Moore 1979). When used as an analgesic, willow treats urethra and bladder irritation, infected wounds, and eczema. Willow is used as an over-all treatment of many diseases, including hay fever, diarrhea, prostatitis, satyriasis, and as a relief of ovarian pain. A poultice is made for treating gangrene and skin ulcers.

Young willow shoots can be stripped of their bark and eaten. The young leaves may be eaten in case of emergency. The inner bark can be eaten raw, prepared like spaghetti, or made into flour.

Riparian: Riparian ecosystem functions provided by prairie willow include the following: 1) Riparian vegetation traps sediments and nutrients from surface runoff and prevents them from entering the aquatic system; 2) the dense matrix of roots in the riparian zone can serve as an effective filter of shallow groundwater; 3) water quality is improved through filtration and the trapping of sediment, nutrients (particularly nitrogen dissolved in groundwater), and pollutants; and 4) riparian areas act as a sponge by absorbing floodwaters. The water is then slowly released over a period of time, which minimizes flood damage and sustains higher base flows during late summer.

Wildlife: Structurally complex riparian vegetation communities provide many different habitats and support a diverse array of animal species. The multiple layers of vegetation provide multiple niches for many species of insects and wildlife canopies of plants growing on streambank provide shade, cooling stream water, while roots stabilize and create overhanging banks, providing habitat for fish and other aquatic organisms.

Rabbits and many ungulates (including deer, moose, and elk) browse on willow twigs, foliage, and bark (Martin 1951). Beaver love willow branches. Several species of birds eat willow buds and young twigs. Riparian fo

General Characteristics

General: Willow Family (Salicaceae). Prairie willow is a colonial shrub as tall as 3m (10 feet) (McGregor et al. 1986, Stephens 1973). The young branches are yellow beneath the gray pubescence. Leaves are alternate, simple, lance-shaped, 6-10 cm (2.4-3.9 in) long. Leaves are dark green and usually glabrous above and densely short-hairy beneath, with the golden yellow veins raised prominently on the lower surface. Plants bloom from April to May and fruit in early June. Catkins emerge before the leaves. The pistillate (female) catkins are sessile, 1-4 cm (0.4-1.6 in) long, and ovoid-conic. The small, hairy capsules are 4-6 mm (1/4 in) long. When ripe, they open to release tiny wind-born seeds with silky hairs at their base.

Required Growing Conditions

Prairie willow grows in upland sites in prairies and sparse woods, especially in sandy soil. It grows in midwestern prairies in Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. For current distribution, please consult the Plant Profile page for this species on the PLANTS Web site.

Cultivation and Care

Willows root freely from cuttings, and are easy to propagate. Willows are difficult to propagate in quantity by seed.

The NRCS, Plant Materials Center, Los Lunas, New Mexico, in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, developed a pole planting technique for establishing willow (Hoag 1993a). We reprint this procedure below. Trial planting on well adapted sites indicate more that 80% survival of cottonwood and willow poles when dormant poles are cut and planted between November and February. It is essential to monitor the water tables at proposed planting sites for at least one year before planting. Poles planted where the water table fluctuates widely will have lower survival rates than those planted where water table is relatively stable. If groundwater monitoring shows the water level will drop more than 3 feet during the growing season (May-October), another site should be selected. Monitoring of observation wells for at least one calendar year before planting will allow better planting depth to ensure establishment.

Steps for Successful Pole Plantings Select collection sites as close to the area as possible to conserve genetic diversity. Try to match donor site and revegetation site in terms of soils, elevation, hydro-dynamics, permanent groundwater table, and soil salinity (which should be low). Select willow cuttings from a local, native stand in healthy condition. Prune no more than 2/3 of plants in an area. Willow cuttings for pole plantings should generally be at least 1/2 inch in diameter or larger. Select the longest, straightest poles available. Use only two to four-year old wood. The total length of the poles needed depends upon the water table depth. Measure water table fluctuations in the planting area for at least 1 year, preferably longer, to determine the lowest water table depth. Take a reading at least once a month, preferably more often during the driest months of the year. Cut poles while dormant. Remove all side branches except the top two or three. Prepare cuttings by trimming off the top to remove the terminal bud, allowing a majority of the energy in the stem to be sent to the lateral buds for root and shot development. Soak poles in water for at least 5 to 7 days before planting. Dig holes to the depth of the lowest anticipated water table. Sites where the water table will be within one foot of the ground surface during the growing season are better suited for willows than cottonwoods. The cuttings should extend several inches into the permanent water table to ensure adequate moisture for sprouting. At least 1/2 to 2/3's of the cutting should be below ground to prevent the cutting from being ripped out during high flows. Usually, at least 2 to 3 feet should be below ground. It should also be long enough to emerge above adjacent vegetation such that it will not be shaded out. Place the cuttings in the holes the same day they were removed from the soak treatment. Set the butt as close to the lowest annual water table elevation as possible. Electric hammer drills (Dewalt model DW530) fitted with one-inch diameter, 3-foot bits were used to plant thousands of willows in New Mexico. With one drill, two people installed 500 willow cuttings per day to a 3-foot depth. A power auger or a punch bar can also be used. Willow pole cuttings were generally planted on 10 to 20 foot centers in New Mexico. Areas with a shallow water table (4-6 feet) were generally planted with a higher number of pole cuttings to enhance overall survival. Often understory species were planted under the canopy of pre-existing overstory (cottonwoods, tree willows), since they are often observed occupying this niche. It is critical to ensure that the soil is packed around the cutting to prevent air pockets. Mudding (filling the hole with water and then adding soil to make mud slurry) can remove air pockets. When necessary, install tree guards around the poles to protect from beavers, other roden

General Upkeep and Control

Traditional resource management of willow includes the following: Willows were traditionally tended by pruning or burning to produce long straight stems. Willow is gathered only at certain times of the year beginning in the autumn after the leaves fall. For many weavers, gathering will continue until the following spring when the sap begins to rise again. Often, basketweavers will prune many willows, sometimes replanting the stems, so there will be nice straight basketry materials the following year. Before gathering, the weavers make offerings of thanks and pray for permission to gather. Often tobacco or other offerings are given before beginning to gather. Basket weavers process materials with their hands and mouths. Herbicides sprayed on willows and along streams have a much higher health risk for humans when they are processed and used for traditional materials.

Howe and Knopf (1991) conclude that to ensure the survival of willows and cottonwoods in riparian communities, resource managers need to implement strategies to control the spread of exotic species.

Livestock grazing has widely been identified as a leading factor causing or contributing to degradation of riparian habitats in the western United States (Chaney et al. 1990, Fleischner 1994, Ohmart 1996). Livestock grazing can alter vegetative structure and composition of riparian habitat. Overgrazing, especially by livestock and big game, frequently changes plant species composition and growth form, density of stands, vigor, seed production of plants, and insect production. Livestock grazing can cause the replacement of bird and mammal species requiring the vertical vegetation structure of riparian habitat to species, which are ubiquitous in their habitat p

Plant Basics
Growth Rate Rapid
General Type Shrub
Growth Period Spring, Summer
Growth Duration Perennial
Lifespan Moderate
Plant Nativity Native to U.S.
Commercial Availability No Known Source
Physical Characteristics
Bloom Period Spring
Displays Fall Colors Yes
Shape/Growth Form Multiple Stem
Drought Tolerance Low
Shade Tolerance Intermediate
Height When Mature 10
Vegetative Spread Slow
Flower Color Yellow
Flower Conspicuousness No
Fruit/Seed Abundance Low
Fruit/Seed Seasonality Summer Summer
Seed Spread Rate Slow
Gardening Characteristics
Propagations (Ways to Grow) Bare Root, Container, Cuttings
Moisture Requirements High
Cold Stratification Required Yes
Minimum Temperature -43
Soil Depth for Roots 10
Toxic to Nearby Plants No
Toxic to Livestock No
After-Harvest Resprout Ability Yes
Responds to Coppicing Yes
Growth Requirements
pH Range 5.9–7 pH
Precipitation Range 20–20 inches/yr
Planting Density 1200–1700 indiv./acre
Soil Textures Coarse, Medium
Soil Depth for Roots 10
Minimum Frost-Free Days 80 day(s)
Salinity Tolerance None
CaCO3 Tolerance Medium
Sustainability & Use
Leaf Retention No
Palatability Medium
Fire Resistant No
Causes Livestock Bloating None

Source: USDA, NRCS, PLANTS Database,
National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA