Sandbar willow shrubs

Sandbar Willow Shrub

The Sandbar Willow shrub is also referred to as Coyote Willow and Narrowleaf Willow.  

It is recognized by the thin leaves on the branches, with the leaves being more than 6 times longer than wide.

Sandbar Willows grow along the banks of streams and on floodplains in multi-stemmed thickets, with branches up to 8 feet tall, and are a prominent plant in the Willow Spring Open Space.

The stems are reddish and have wooly hairs. These branches of the willows are flexible, so they can stand up to flooding, high winds and heavy snow. The flowers are referred to as catkins, which are hanging and spike-like flower clusters. The seeds look like puffs of cotton, similar to their cottonwood relatives. 

Scientific Name and Plant Family Information

The Scientific name is Salix exigua which comes from Latin for small or sparse.

It is in the plant family Salicaceae (Willow), which also contains cottonwood, aspen and poplar trees along with willow trees. 

Some interesting things about this family are that the male and female flowers are on different plants (dioecious) and the bark has methyl salicylate, from which aspirin was originally derived.

close-up of thin sandbar willow leaves
Sandbar willow leaves and catkins

Through the Seasons

In March-May, the female shrubs produce yellow flowers, called catkins, which turn to brown when they go to seed. They have small tufts of fluffy white fibers like cotton which contain the seeds and are carried along in the wind.

In the fall, the leaves turn gold.  In the winter, the branches which are that year’s new growth are red to reddish-brown and can be spotted from far away.

Sandbar willow red branches in winter
New growth is red on Sandbar Willow shrub in winter

Native or Non-Native?

The Sandbar Willow is native to this area and grows along streams and in floodplains.  It likes to have its “feet” wet, with its roots in wet areas. It can be found throughout much of Colorado at elevations from 3,350 to 11,000 feet.

Where to find in Willow Spring Open Space

There is a large thicket of Sandbar Willows along Willow Creek close to the Englewood Dam. Sandbar willows are also found towards the South end of the Willow Spring Open Space along the flood plain.

Thicket of Sandbar Willows
Thicket of Sandbar Willows

Did You Know?

Sandbar Willows play an important part in the continual changing of stream channels. As the stream meanders, sand is deposited in bars and along the shores of the stream.

Sandbar Willows grow in that sand, preventing erosion and allowing soil to build up. Eventually Cottonwood trees grow in this soil and the area becomes a cottonwood grove. That grove makes a long-lasting change in the stream channel.

Sandbar Willows also provide an important ecological role by providing food for moose, deer and elk in the mountains. Closer to Denver, they provide cover for birds, small mammals and amphibians along with a nesting habitat for migratory songbirds. Coyotes can also hide in their thickets.

References and Further Reading

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