Habit: Salix exigua is a deciduous shrub with a pleasant figure. Its ashy gray stems and reddish, flexible branches form dense thickets. This species spreads by woody rhizomes and usually grows up to 10 feet tall, yet, sometimes it can grow to become a beautiful, slender tree, up to 28 feet tall. The leaves are alternate, lanceolate or linear, 2 to 6 inches long and quite narrow; leaf margins are entire or finely serrated. The foliage is hairy when young and turns yellow in the fall. Each plant bears either female or male flowers, which are clustered in dense catkins with yellow scales. The flowers bloom from February to May, during and after expansion of the leaves.
Ecology: Commonly found in canyon bottoms, riparian areas and other frequently wet or flooded soils, often in dry climates up to 8’000 feet of elevation. It is native from Western North America, from the Oregon and California Coast and east to Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Texas.
Growing conditions: favors full sun to partial shade and moist to very wet soils. It tolerates floods and can be planted alongside ditches and wetlands for erosion control, where its rhizomes will help to stabilize the soils. Ideal for the edge of a small pond or rain garden.
Native Americans used the flexible stems of this species to make baskets and split-willow figurines. These figurines typically represented mule deer, big horn sheep and other prey animals. Anthropologists believe they were part of ritual ceremonies in which natives, as far as 4,000 years ago, asked the animal’s spirit for blessings before hunting them for food.
S. exigua has a long list of older synonyms, including S. hindsiana and S. nevadensis.