Wood of the Month:
Black Willow's Fame Exceeds Commercial Uses

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Salix nigra of the Family Salicaceae

Black willow, salis, swamp willow

Height varies widely from a high of about 140 feet with diameters of 4 feet to a shrub-like height. In some areas typical height ranges are 30 to 60 feet with diameters of 14 to 24 inches. Weight ranges from 22 to 26 pounds per cubic foot.

Experts disagree on this wood's workability. Some say willow works well with tools, glues and nails well, and takes and holds stains and finishes well while others give it a poor rating for working with hand and power tools. The wood is even-textured, lightweight and strong.

Black willow has the distinction of being the most commercially important of all willows found in the United States, which makes it number one out of a field of more than 100 species. It is one of the few willows worldwide suitable for wood products; while willows account for some 300 or more species around the world, very few have commercial importance. But while black willow does have many commercial uses, its claim to fame has more to do with its immense importance as a floodplain tree.

Black willow is believed by many to be the largest willow in the world, although in some of the areas where it grows, it looks more like a shrub than a lofty tree. It is therefore hard to assign a "typical" height to black willow. Donald Culross Peattie, in his book A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, writes that the willow found on the dunes of Cape Hatteras "is but a shrub; beside the brooks, streams, and smaller rivers of the eastern seaboard, it is a moderately tall tree 40 to 50 feet high," while the tallest black willows are giants, some 120 feet tall or more.

Black Willow's Uses
Black willow is not high on anyone's list of fine furniture woods. In the Fine Hardwoods Selectorama by Larry Frye, black willow rates a two-sentence mention: "Used largely as lumber. Known in the casket trade as salis." The Guide to American Hardwood Species gives it slightly more space, explaining that the sapwood of black willow "varies in width according to growing conditions."

Willow's sapwood is light, creamy brown while the heartwood is a pale, reddish brown to grayish brown. Wood from black willow is generally straight-grained but can be interlocked and will occasionally yield a figure.

Uses for black willow include rustic furniture, caskets, moulding, millwork, paneling, doors, sports equipment, kitchen utensils, polo balls and toys. It was long the preferred wood for making artificial limbs because of its combination of strength, moderately high shock resistance and light weight. Black willow's strength is not enough to make it suitable for uses such as beams or posts but it is used for roof and wall sheathing, subflooring and studs. Black willow is used to manufacture boxes, pallets and crates. It is also used for slack cooperage, excelsior, pulpwood, wicker furniture and charcoal.

Black Willow's "Fame"
Despite having less commercial value than many other domestic woods, black willow is an extremely well-regarded tree. Black willow's "fame" comes from where and how it grows. Black willow thrives near water and propagates easily. Its twigs snap off at the base, explains Peattie, "and are capable of rooting if thrust in the ground." Peattie adds that untold numbers of trees were probably once twigs floating in the river.

"And though it has the worthless lazy look of some old riverbank loiterer," Peattie continues, "it plays a heroic role. For when engineers have to face the problem of reinforcing levees, the willow is unsurpassed for revetments. No other wood is so pliant, yet tough, no other so cheap nor so ready at hand."

Willows are sometimes introduced to damp areas so that their interlaced root system will soak up water, hold the soil and prevent erosion. Willows are also used for shade and as a wind blocker in fields.

Black Willow's Range
With the exception of Florida, black willow can be found in most of the eastern half of North America, from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. It is found in New Brunswick and the Lake Superior area and as far west as North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas


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