Willow trees, particularly weeping willows, are iconic trees for anyone who lives near water. These large trees have unique leaves and drooping branches, making them a popular choice for anyone looking to make their yard stand out. But where do willow trees grow?
Willow trees were originally native to parts of Central Asia and later to North America. In the United States, willow trees commonly grow in Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana in hot and humid climates near rivers, swamps and ponds.
However, there’s a lot more that goes into the location than just rattling off the names of a few states! In this article, we’ll dive into what makes an ideal habitat for willows, the types of willow trees, and the most common spots where you can find them.
How To Identify Willow Trees
Some species of trees are difficult to identify at a glance. Similar leaf shape and bark texture can leave two different trees nearly indistinguishable in the eyes of an amateur. Luckily, the willow is perhaps one of the easiest trees to identify.
Brandeis University explains that weeping willow trees (scientific name: salix babylonica) can grow up to 90 ft tall and have drooping branches. From afar, a willow tree might look like a large mushroom with an exceptionally large cap.
As you get closer to the tree, you’ll see that the leaves are thin and pointed, almost like a spearhead. The outer side of the leaves is usually a light green color, while the underside has a pale complexion. Willow bark is gray in color and very rough.
You’ll often find willows growing near water, whether that’s a stream, pond, or swamp. Because of the flexible nature of their branches, some willow trees might look like massive bushes, since their foliage reaches all the way to the ground.
Willow Trees Grow Super Quick
According to the Arbor Day Foundation, willow trees can top more than 2 feet each year! In their early years, they can easily grow more than that amount in the right conditions. However, willows tend to have a short lifespan, living no more than 30 years in most scenarios.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to identify willows and other kinds of trees, it can be beneficial to get in a field guide for when you’re out hiking!
There’s nothing wrong with searching for photos on online, but it’s always nice to have a paper copy in the outdoors with you. The National Geographic Pocket Guide to Shrubs and Trees of North America is an essential reference guide that will make plant identification and your tree journey so much smoother!
Most Common Types Of Willow Trees
The Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica) is the kind of willow that most people are familiar with. Despite being originally from Asia, the weeping willow is widespread across the United States.
But there are a few other kinds of willow trees out there, too!
Scouler’s Willow (Salix scouleriana) – Scouler’s willow is one of the smallest kinds of willow trees, usually only reaching to be about 36 feet tall. It is named after the Scottish botanist John Scouler. This willow is common in the lower parts of Canada, throughout the Rockies, and parts of the Pacific Northwest.
White Willow (Salix alba) – The white willow can grow to be anywhere from 30 to 90 feet tall, and is largely located in the Great Lakes regions of the United States. Additionally, it’s fairly common in Europe and Central Asia. The white willow has lighter leaves than its brethren, hence the name.
Peach-Leaf Willow (Salix amygdaloides) – According to the United States Forest Service, the peach-leaf willow is one of the most widespread willow trees in North America, appearing in 27 states and 6 territories in Canada. It only grows to be about 40 feet tall, but still manages to be one of the tallest trees in the Great Plains region. Like its relatives, it thrives in wet conditions, but can also be found in dry, silt-like soil.
Types Of Willow Shrubs
Not all willows are trees, however, most are shrubs!
The Hakuro Nishiki (Salix integra) shrub is a common landscape feature, known for its colorful, variegated leaves. Other willow shrubs include the Bebb Willow (Salix bebbiana), Purple Osier Willow (Salix purpurea), and the Salix discolor.
There are many variations of willows, some of which only grow in certain areas throughout the USA. These shrubs are used by conservationists to help combat erosion.
In a study conducted by the USDA and the Soil Conservation Service, willow shrubs were found to “maintain or restore endemic riparian and wetland plant communities.”
The tightly-woven root systems and rapid growth rate of willow shrubs make them the perfect vegetation for combating erosion during flood season.
Plus, they provide foliage, vegetation, and food for native animal species! Elk, moose, small birds, and even honey bees benefit from willow shrubs.
The Most Common Places Where Willow Trees Grow
The weeping willow is a pretty hardy tree, and according to Pace University, it can even thrive in acidic soil conditions. They do, however, require a lot of water! This is why they are frequently found near or around ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers.
As we mentioned earlier, willow trees can be found across the United States, typically growing close to the water in zones 4 through 9, although they flourish in zones 6-8.
Excluding a few areas in the northern reaches of the United States, as well as the lower parts of Texas and Florida, willow trees thrive in North America. Let’s discuss a few of these places in greater detail. The eight most common places where willow trees grow are:
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
Kentucky is a great state for growing all kinds of plants. It’s right in the middle of the United States and has a hardiness zone of 6-7, making it the perfect place for weeping willows to grow.
Kentucky has a relatively temperate climate, with a clear start and end to its seasons. According to data collected by Kentucky State University for a state climate summary, Kentucky’s summers are hot and humid while winters are mild with occasional bouts of extreme cold.
Generally, high temperatures in the summer don’t break 90 degrees Fahrenheit, while in the winter high temps might be anywhere from 38 degrees to 44 degrees Fahrenheit.
On average, northern Kentucky receives 42 inches of precipitation while Southern Kentucky receives 52 inches. Parts of southern Kentucky inch their way into hardiness zone 7.
Fun Fact: One of Kentucky’s Champion Trees is a black willow (Salix nigra) in Harlan County at the Pine Mountain Settlement School. It was nominated as a champion tree in 2020 and is 62 ft tall with a 75 ft crown.
Arkansas has a wide range of growing conditions, with the northwestern part of the state a zone 6-7, while the middle of the state is a zone 8.
Arkansas has a humid subtropical climate, with temperatures ranging on both ends of the spectrum. In a climate study conducted by NOAA, it was found that this state experiences extreme temperatures. The average high temperatures in the summer can reach more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, while winter lows sit at about 25 degrees Fahrenheit!
The state is known for having massive amounts of precipitation, be it rain or snow. The climate study showed that generally, storms in Arkansas are capable of dropping 10 inches of precipitation in short periods of time.
Like Kentucky, a black willow made the list of Arkansas’ Champion Trees. The tree is located in Burns Park in North Little Rock. The tree is about 134 ft tall with a crown width of 36 ft.
Tennessee is probably one of the best places to grow a willow tree. The state is pretty much exclusively a hardiness zone 7, which is right in the middle of the recommended zones for S. babylonica.
When thinking about climate, Tennessee can be divided up into four distinct sections, as outlined by the East Tennessee State University Department of Climatology.
The westernmost division of Tennessee has a median temperature between 60 and 62 degrees Fahrenheit. The easternmost division of Tennessee is the mountainous region, so in some places, median temperatures can be as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Generally, Tennessee has a temperate climate.
When it comes to precipitation, most of Tennessee ranges anywhere from 60-65 inches per year. The lower flatlands experience less precipitation, and it mostly drains into the Cumberland or Tennessee rivers. These areas are where the bulk of willows grow.
Tennessee has one willow as its champion tree, again a black willow. It’s significantly smaller than the champion trees in Arkansas and Kentucky but still stands at 57 feet tall with a 50-foot crown spread. The black willow is located in Knox country.
4. North Carolina
North Carolina is split almost down the middle in terms of hardiness zone. The western portion of the state is zone 7, while the eastern part of the state is zone 8. Thankfully, weeping willows thrive in either zone, so they are widespread across the state.
North Carolina is like Tennessee in terms of climate, with a range of temperatures throughout the year.
Generally, the temperatures can top 95 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, and drop to 20 degrees or below in the winter in North Carolina. According to a climate study conducted by the North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies, the number of extremely hot days hasn’t increased in the past years, but nighttime temperatures have increased, sitting at around 70 or 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
In terms of precipitation, North Carolina gets about 48-50 inches each year, but the climate study suggested that heavy rain and hurricane events could increase the average precipitation rate in the coming years. The wetter the better for weeping willows!
North Carolina boasts a weeping willow as one of its champion trees, with a height of 73 ft and a total circumference of 167 inches. The weeping willow is located in the town of Cashiers in Jackson county.
5. South Carolina
South Carolina is best known for its sandy beaches and palm trees, but it’s also an ideal growing spot for willow trees. The state is almost completely a hardiness zone 8, with a small portion of the northwestern tip inching into zone 7.
Data collected for a climate study by NOAA indicates that South Carolina is primarily classified by its hot, humid summers and lackluster winters. Average temperatures range from the 50s to the 60s, with warmer temps felt closer to the coast, while cooler days are the status quo in the Appalachian Mountain range.
Summers can be brutal in the low country, but winters are quite mild, with average temperatures between 40 and 47 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Midlands is the driest part of the state, with less than 40 inches of precipitation each year. Most other areas of South Carolina receive about 40-50 inches of rain a year, with more precipitation in the mountains.
While there isn’t a registry of champion trees in South Carolina that features a willow, there is a unique variation of the tree that appears throughout both North and South Carolina. According to North Carolina State University, the Carolina willow (Salix caroliniana), commonly known as the swamp willow, only grows to be about 20 ft tall, but is notorious for growing in the worst possible soil conditions. For that reason, it’s often found near salt water and other water run-off areas.
Like South Carolina, Georgia is primarily located in zone 8. There are a few areas in the north that are in zone 7, and a few places in the south and southeast that are in zone 9. While willows will grow in zone 9, the bulk of them are growing in hot, humid zone 8.
Because Georgia has a portion of coastline near the Gulf of Mexico, and mountainous regions throughout the state (Appalachian and the Blue Ridge Mountains), temperature zones vary greatly. According to a study conducted by NOAA into the climate of Georgia, the state is known for long summers and short winters with temperatures rarely dropping below freezing.
Precipitation also ranges pretty drastically, with 70+ inches in mountainous areas, and an average of about 45-50 inches in the lowland areas. Snow is infrequent, and doesn’t usually amount to more than 5 inches.
Since the summers are so hot and humid, and rainfall is fairly consistent, Georgia is largely an agricultural state. But willows grow alongside those Georgia peaches!
In Georgia, a weeping willow made their champion willow list. It is located in Young Harris, which is in Towns Country, Georgia. The tree has both a height and crown spread of 52 feet, and was last measured in 2010.
Alabama is largely land-locked, with the lower three-quarters of the state residing in hardiness zone 8, and the northern portion reaching into zone 7.
Alabama is at the perfect spot where air masses meet, coming up from the Gulf and down from the rest of the US, giving it a pretty mild climate.
NOAA conducted a study of the climate in 2020 and found that Alabama’s temperatures haven’t changed much since the early 2000s. Summer days are hot, with frequent days reaching above 95 degrees Fahrenheit. But, winters are mild and temperatures don’t drop much below 30 degrees in the north and 45 degrees in the south.
Alabama has pretty consistent precipitation, with only a few dry months near the end of the summer. On average, you can expect to see 55+ inches in any given year. This hot, wet weather is perfect for agriculture and even better for willow trees.
But, because Alabama sits right where air masses collide, the state has frequent tornadoes. These nasty storms wreak havoc on willows, which have characteristically weak limbs and snap easily in high winds.
Alabama has plenty of champion trees, but as of 2021, they lack a champion willow.
Louisiana is at about the southernmost point in the United States where willow trees grow. The northern portion of the state is a zone 8, while the lower half is firmly a zone 9.
The climate in Louisiana is hard to pin down because there will be wildly hot streaks and occasional brutally cold days. NOAA’s climate study indicated that historically, there are usually between 25 and 40 extremely hot days each summer, while the days with temps below freezing are next to none.
Precipitation in Louisiana is almost constant, with some places experiencing 60+ inches of rain every year.
Louisiana, being so close to the Gulf of Mexico, is subject to hurricane conditions during the summer. These storms often destroy a lot of property in southern Louisiana and can be a nasty problem for willow trees, which typically grow near floodplains.
Unfortunately, no willow trees made the list of Louisiana‘s champion trees.
Don’t Weep (Willow, That Is!)
Get it? Weeping willow? Ok, I’ll stop…
So, where do willow trees grow? Hopefully, you’ve learned that the ideal climate for willow trees is often hot and humid. Because willow trees have a relatively short lifespan (about 30 years), low temps can stunt their growth, so they love the weather in the southern US.
But just because they’re fans of the marshes, swamps, and riverbanks in the lower states, doesn’t mean they don’t pop up in other places! Most states in the US have weeping willow trees, and black willows too. The only states where you’ll be hard-pressed to find willows are in the north. Think Michigan, Wyoming, and Montana.
Remember, willows prefer:
- Neutral or slightly acidic soil
- Full sun
- Rich, moist growing conditions
Willow trees, like the weeping willow, are originally from Asia. But, because of their extensive root systems and incredibly fast growth rate, they’ve become a staple of erosion control specialists and landscapers throughout North America.
If your willow tree is causing an issue, take a peak at out guide on the reasons to cut down your willow tree for some tips!
Mutlu-Durak, H., & Yildiz Kutman, B. (2021). Seed Treatment with Biostimulants Extracted from Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica) Enhances Early Maize Growth. Plants, 10(7), 1449.
Szekely, G., & Dagmar, V. (2011). Willow trees in the parks of Timisoara. JOURNAL of Horticulture, Forestry and Biotechnology, 15(1), 75-77.
Roloff, A. (2020). WEEPING WILLOW AS A POTENTIAL URBAN TREE IN BHUTAN.
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