I spent a lot of time with our native willows while photographing for Trees & Shrubs of the Pacific Northwest, but never really thought about them as a spectacular part of our fall color palette. Maybe that’s because I was looking for them in flower and with fresh summer green leaves.
That changed when I drove across a Forest Service road on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest west of Lake Chelan, Washington last fall on the recommendation of a fellow nature photographer. Road 5090, the Shady Pass Road, connects Lake Chelan with the Entiat valley. It climbs to around 6,000 feet and we weren’t able to make it all the way across the pass because we ran into some early season snow compacted into ice on the road.
Most of the area has burned in recent years, resulting in a dramatically changed landscape. What was most striking were golden clumps of Scouler’s willow (Salix scouleriana) among a sea of snowbrush (Ceanothus velutinus). Scouler’s is a widespread willow, found in every county in Oregon, all but a few counties in Washington, and all of northern California and southern British Columbia. It grows in every state from the Rockies to the Pacific. Scouler’s is also one of the few willows you’ll commonly find growing on relatively dry, upland sites. Most of our other native willows are rarely far from wet areas.
While the willows we found in eastern Washington were all multi-stemmed shrubs, Scouler’s willow can also take the form of a small tree, occasionally up to 65 feet tall. I’ve seen it growing in back yards around Bellingham. It’s intolerant of shade, and as other trees grow larger it will die back or become a spindly stem stretching toward the sun.
Scouler’s willow is adapted to fire and other disturbances, sprouting from the root crown. Without fire, the closing forest canopy will shade out Salix scouleriana.
Willow twigs are a preferred browse for large ungulates like deer, elk, and moose, often providing a substantial nutrition source through the winter. Many birds feed on the seeds, buds, leaves, and twigs. The shrubby plants provide good nesting habitat, too. According to the US Forest Service, Scouler’s willow produces denser growth when browsed. Bees depend on this early bloomer for pollen in the spring.
If you have space and live in the west, consider adding a Scouler’s willow to your landscape. It will complement the vine maple, red huckleberry, and serviceberry fall color that Kelly Brenner wrote about on the Native Plants and Wildlife Gardening blog last year.
Note: this post originally appeared on the NPWG blog November 1, 2013.