Lost Flora Fen provides the perfect habitat for Willow Flycatchers, like this one, to build their nests and feed their young a bounty of insects. This one has chosen a Bebb Willow for its home. Photo: Jill Kennay

Lost Flora Fen on Raccoon Creek has eight different willow species and you should plant some, too!

By Alan Branhagen, NLI Executive Director

I had my first site visit to Lost Flora Fen on Raccoon Creek on Friday, August 4 (2023). It is a wetland wonderland with remnant wet prairie, sedge meadow, springs and the meandering Raccoon Creek and its old oxbows. This habitat provides the perfect habitat for willows and seven species had been documented at the site – we found one more so now there are eight! (At the site’s Open House on October 7, 2023 we may have found a ninth).

Willows have a reputation of being a fast growing, weak wooded, short-lived tree (and messy to boot). Most people only know them through the non-native weeping willow which is a hybrid that is beautiful in the right place but epitomizes all the aforementioned drawbacks.  Lost Flora has two species of tree willows: Black Willow (Salix nigra) and Peach-leaved Willow (Salix amygdaloides) both important trees for wildlife and just fine in their habitat of growing along streams and rivers that are ever changing, flood prone, and subject to siltation.  The remaining willows are shrubby, some of which may become small trees with age.

Willows support many species of insects that consume their foliage – the well-known poster child is a butterfly, the Viceroy which is the mimic of our beloved Monarch. Willow flowers are also very important to pollinators: nectar sources and if male, pollen rich! There are several species of native bees that are willow specialists (they will supply their young with no other food source). All willows are dioecious which mean they are either male or female with corresponding flowers called catkins, often protected by silky hairs when they emerge and how the name pussy willow came about. The silky hairs are a protective coat because most willows are very early to bloom and subject to the vagaries of our spring weather.  This early bloom time also makes them so important as early season food source for so many insects.

Management at Lost Flora Fen will help maintain the site’s unique biodiversity and protect its unique, habitat-restricted willows. Willows are not shade tolerant so our recent brush removal will help our rarer shrub willows.  All willows respond to disturbance by growing strong stems that will be densely covered by blooms the following spring. We will always keep some areas unburned or uncut so the early spring willow flowers will provide for pollinators and insects. Viceroys also overwinter as caterpillars in little “sleeping bags” they build from the remnant core of a willow leaf enclosed around them using their silk, the leaf’s petiole tethered to the stem with their silk so it won’t drop off in winter.  (Monarchs vacation in Mexico for the winter, Viceroys stay put, actually freezing solid and coming back to life in spring!)

When I mention someone should plant willows, they often think of the big trees which are not wise choices for the average home.  But there are so many other species of willows in the region, most of which are shrubs!  Consider planting at least two: a male and female of your favorite species!


List of Willow Species at Lost Flora Fen

Peach-leaved Willow (Salix amygdaloides)

A larger willow usually growing 30 to 50 feet or more. Often with pendant branches and leaves that are lighter underneath for a two-tone effect. Catkins are in mid spring with the emerging leaves. Usually found in riparian strips along creeks and rivers.

Bebb Willow (Salix bebbiana)

Large shrub or small tree (8-15-ft.) with leathery looking leaves, whitish underneath; normally blooms just after pussy willow, the next source of sustenance for pollinators. This species is usually found in fens, sedge meadows and other cool water wetlands.

Note: The Flora of the Chicago Region lists the common name as Beaked Willow. The US Forest Service lists several common names for this species including Bebb Willow. Because the botanist who discovered this willow species is originally from Rockford and buried at Greenwood Cemetery, NLI wishes to honor him, Michael Schuck Bebb (1833-1895), and therefore will call it the Bebb Willow.

Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)

Large shrub or small tree (10-20-ft.) with very striking leaves that are bluish white underneath. First willow to bloom so is important as a very early source of sustenance for pollinators. This shrub is mainly found in wetlands but occasionally grows wild in dry prairies too.

Heart-leaved Willow (Salix eriocephala) with male catkins. Photo: Alan Branhagen

Heart-leaved Willow (Salix eriocephala)

A large shrub or small tree (10-20-ft.) willow with early spring catkins and leaves just a bit lighter on the underside. It’s found mainly along creeks and rivers.

Sandbar Willow (Salix interior)

A very fine leaved willow that suckers in a thicket in the same manner as bamboo (8-15-ft. tall or taller but spreading far and wide). Best streamside as its name suggests, where it is nature’s engineer to control erosion. Aggressive and out of place in a sedge meadow or wet prairie. Flowers from April to September as a great source for pollinators.

Blue-leaved Willow (Salix myricoides)

A rare, large shrub (6-12-ft.) with very striking and beautiful leaves with bluish-white undersides, large catkins in early spring. A good indicator of sandy wetlands.

Black Willow (Salix nigra)

A common large willow that becomes tree sized and usually growing 50 ft or taller. Leaves are green above and beneath. The most common willow tree found in all types of wetlands.

Meadow Willow (Salix petiolaris), Photo: Alan Branhagen

Meadow Willow (Salix petiolaris)

A large shrub (6-12-ft.) that blooms in early spring with small catkins, twigs can be reddish in winter. This shrub is usually found in sedge meadows and small marshes.






Meadow Willow (Salix petiolaris) with male flowers. Photo: Alan Branhagen


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