When we think of a willow the first picture which comes to mind is a beautiful tree with leafy branches drooping over a lake or river: the weeping willow. In fact the Salix family consists of about 300 species, ranging from the creeping shrub to the majestic tree, with an astounding variety of shapes and colours.
Thanks to such a range of species, willows have a wide geographical distribution; about 60 are indigenous to Europe and half of these are found in Italy.
Together with poplars they constitute the Salicaceae family; they are dioecious with unisex inflorescences present on separate individuals. Normally the plants with this type of sexual differentiation rely for their pollination on the wind, a very inaccurate postman, causing a large amount of pollen to be produced and a great deal of energy to be dispersed.
Willows differ from this group in that they use bees instead of the wind but, not having showy inflorescences to attract these insects, they have developed pollen which is red, orange or a rich yellow, and produce nectars. Thus they become important honey yielding species, especially on account of their early flowering.
Long regarded as man’s companion for practical purposes, with its flexible branches that are easily woven and its ready availability as firewood, the potential of willow as a decorative plant has largely been ignored. Nurseries today offer us a wide choice of species, varieties and hybrids enabling us to rediscover this remarkable genus, and appreciate such subtle virtues as its form, the varied colour of its branches, its early flowering.