Minnesota Profile: Bebb Willow (Salix bebbiana)
Bebb willow is named for naturalist Michael Schuck Bebb, the first person to formally study the species. It is also known as gray willow, for the color of its bark, and as long-beaked willow, for its dry fruit, or capsules, with a beaklike point.
Bebb willow is the most common of several species of so-called diamond willows. The "diamonds" of reddish-brown wood are actually cankers produced by a fungus.
Bebb willow grows as a multistemmed shrub or a small tree, from 10 to 20 feet tall, with a stem diameter up to 6 inches. The largest known Bebb willow is 23 feet tall with a 27-foot crown spread and a circumference of 101 inches at ground level. The smooth, gray bark develops a rough texture as the willow ages. Dull green, elliptical leaves distinguish it from most Minnesota willows.
This willow grows throughout Canada and the northern United States, from Washington to Maine, as well as in isolated locations in the southern Rocky Mountains. Its range in Minnesota includes all but the southwestern corner.
A familiar sight in Minnesota's wetlands, Bebb willow tolerates a wide variety of growing conditions. It quickly regenerates in areas disturbed by fires, floods, and human activities, either growing as a marginal species in both hardwood and conifer stands, or forming dense thickets composed almost exclusively of willow. The shallow, fibrous roots help prevent erosion on disturbed sites.
Warblers, flycatchers, and other songbirds call willow thickets home. They find insects to eat and cover for nesting among the willow's stems. Deer and moose browse the leaves and shoots. Snowshoe hares, beaver, and other mammals feed on the young shoots and inner bark. Ruffed grouse rely on the buds for winter food.
Artisans remove the bark of the diamond willow, then carve the willow's light-colored wood, thus highlighting the dark, diamond-shaped cankers. The wood makes beautiful and sturdy canes, furniture, and picture frames. Some artisans weave young willow shoots into baskets and chairs.
Shawn Conrad, Minnesota Conservation Corps northeast project coordinator