THE WILLOWS Along the watercourses the willow family finds its most congenial habitat. It is a very large family, numbering more than one hundred and seventy species, which are, however, mostly shrubs rather than trees. America has seventy species of willows, and new forms are constantly being discovered, which are the results of the crossing of closely related species. These "natural hybrids" have greatly confused the botany of the willow family.
Not more than half a dozen American willows ever at tain the height of good-sized trees, and many of these are more commonly found in the tangled shrubbery of river banks, or covering long semi-arid strips of ground far to the north, or on mountain sides where their growth is stunted. Little trees, six inches high, bearing the char acteristic catkins and narrow leaves of the willow, are found on the arctic tundras.
The wood of willows is pale in color, soft in texture, and of very little use as lumber or fuel, except in localities where trees are scarce. The Indian depended upon the inner bark of the withy willow for material for his fish nets and lines, and farmers in the pioneer days took the tough, supple stems, when spring made the sap run freely, for the binding together of the rails of their fences. Knotted tight and seasoned, these twigs hardened and lasted for years.
In Europe the white willow has long been used for the making of wooden shoes, artificial limbs, and carriage bodies. Its wood makes the finest charcoal for gunpowder. Willow wares, such as baskets and wicker furniture, are as old as civilization, and that in its primitive stages. It is a common sight in Europe to see groves of trees from which the long twigs have been taken yearly for these uses.
The stumps are called " pollards " and the trees "pollarded willows" whose discouraging task has been to grow a yearly crop of withes for the basket-makers; yet each spring finds them bristling with the new growth.
The hosts of Caesar invading England in the First Century found the Britons defending themselves behind willow-woven shields, and living in huts of wattled willows, smeared with mud. From that time to the present the uses of these long shoots have multiplied.
The roots of willows are fibrous and tough as the shoots. For this reason they serve a useful purpose in binding the banks of streams, especially where these are liable to flood. Nature seems to have designed these trees for just this purpose, for a twig lying upon the ground strikes root at every joint if the soil it falls on is sufficiently moist. The wind breaks off twigs and the water carries them down stream where they lodge on banks and sand bars, and these are soon covered with billows of green.
Willows start growth early in spring, putting out their catkins, the two sexes on different trees, before the opening of the leaves. Before the foliage is full grown, the light seeds, each a minute speck, floats away in a wisp of silky down. Its vitality lasts but a day, so it must fall on wet ground at once in order to grow. But the willow family is quite independent of its seeds in the matter of propaga tion. Chop the roots and twigs into bits and each will grow. Chop a young willow tree into sticks and fence posts and each one, if it is stuck: green into the ground, covers itself with a head of leafy twigs before the season is over.