A native of western North America, mostly west of the Rockies, coyote willow (Salix exigua) has many other common names including sandbar, narrowleaf, slender, and slenderleaf willows. Like most willows, coyote willow prefers wet habitats such as streams, rivers, wet meadows, standing water, sandbars, and floodplains.
Seeding abundantly, coyote willow also reproduces by suckers and rapidly establishes itself as an extensive thicket from one plant. Although usually taking the form of a shrub, however it can grow as a small tree.
Coyote willow bark is thin, grayish brown and fissured. Young branches are smooth and grayer than the trunk. The deciduous lanceolate leaves are often slightly curved with a bluish-green upper side. The bottom side of coyote willow leaves are covered in minute white hairs, especially when young, and cause the bottom of the leaf to look gray or whitish. In the fall coyote willow leaves turn yellow.
Coyote willow was widely used by Native Americans. The flexible branches formed poles that were used in constructing light shelters. The shoots and twigs were important as a raw material for basketry. Stripped bark could be fashioned into cord and string. Many everyday items utilized coyote willow branches – snowshoes, looms, sleeping beds, game pieces and seemingly hundreds of other items.
Medicinally willow bark tea is pharmaceutically equivalent to aspirin and is effective for headache, fever and sore throat. The Paiute added burned willow charcoal to water and used the resultant “tea” to cure diarrhea. The leaves, when boiled in water and concentrated, made a green dye for buckskin while the roots made a rose-tan dye.
The inner bark of coyote willow can be eaten raw. Strips of inner bark resemble spaghetti when cooked. And a flour was made from the dried inner bark. I am not certain how good the willow bark “spaghetti” or flour would taste and really do not have a burning desire to experiment. In an emergency, the young leaves can be eaten. I nibbled a few leaves and found them palatable.
Coyote willows, along with other willow species, are environmentally important. Willows stabilize stream, lake and river banks and prevent sediment erosion, helping to maintain channel morphology and aiding in flood abatement. Willows provide habitat for fish and wildlife. Rabbits, deer, moose and elk and other mammals browse on willow twigs, branches and foliage. Beavers eat the branches and utilize them in their dens and dams. Some birds eat willow buds.
These coyote willows were photographed at Rancho San Rafael Park in Reno NV.