The red willow is found throughout the western United States, and it is a common species seen by hikers in Southern California where it grows along canyon bottoms.
Plants in the genus Salix are commonly known as willows, and the red willow (Salix laevigata) is a California native commonly seen while hiking in Laguna Canyon. The red willow may appear either as a shrub or a tree (to about 25 feet in height, although some may grow much higher). It commonly grows in dense thickets, and its presence usually indicates water (either a stream, obvious wetland area or an underground water course). As such it is generally found along canyon bottoms such as in the aptly named Willow Canyon.
In addition to red willow, Salix laevigata is also sometimes commonly referred to as the polished willow or the black willow. The scientific name “laevigata” roughly translates as “smooth”. The red willow belongs to the family Salicaceae, which also includes the cottonwoods (genus Populus).
Red Willow Leaves
The red willow’s leaves are elliptical in shape with either a pointed or round tip, and they may be anywhere between two and six inches in length. Upon closer inspection, one will see that the leaf is hairy with margins that are either smooth or minutely serrated. Each leaf has an obvious central vein. The top of the leaf is a green color and shiny, whereas the underside is a paler (to white) color.
The red willow is a deciduous tree, although they seldom loose all their leaves in Southern California’s coastal canyons. The bark of the adult red willow is rough in texture and gray in color, although it may tend toward a brownish-yellow in some cases. Young twigs are reddish in color.
A Dioecious Plant
The red willow typically flowers from February to May. It is a dioecious plant, meaning that it cannot self-fertilize. Instead, male (androecious) and female (gynoecious) flowers occur on different trees. The male trees produce microspores, and the female trees produce megaspores. The plant’s cylindrical flower clusters (called the catkin) appear around the same time as new leaf growth in the spring. The female catkins produce small seeds, which are carried by the wind or in water. Both male and female catkins may grow to four inches in length and are yellow.
Red Willows and Human Usage
The red willow, along with other native willow species, was used by indigenous people to make baskets and bows. Willows were also employed when building shelters. The bark of the willow possesses salicin, which is similar to acetylsalicylic acid, otherwise known as aspirin. As such, the willow can be used medicinally as a pain-reliever.
Because they grow quickly, red willows are often used to stabilize soil on slopes and near streams. Frequently used for habitat restoration projects, red willows provide excellent habitat for a variety of animal species including birds and various terrestrial animals.
Where to Observe a Red Willow in Laguna Canyon
There are many places to observe a red willow while hiking in Laguna Canyon, but one of the easiest and most interesting hikes is the Laurel Canyon Trail. The hiker will also see the arroyo willow (Salix lasiolepis) on this hike.