Arctic willow – Salix arctica

Alaska Wildflowers | Pink

Arctic willow in the White Mountains in the Alaska interior

Arctic Willow

Salix arctica

Common Names

Arctic willow
Northern willow

Synonyms

Salix anglorum
Salix brownei
Salix crassijulis
Salix hudsonensis
Salix pallasii
Salix tortulosa

(all variations)

Subspecies

there are many hybridizations but no listed subspecies (see note below the full classification)

Genus: Salix L. (willow)
Family: Salicaceae (Willow family)
Order: Salicales
full classification

Duration – Growth Habit

Perennial



Uses

For information only (typically historical) – I take no responsibility for adverse effects from the use of any plant.

The Arctic willow holds a significant place in the cultural practices and survival strategies of the Inuit and the Gwich’in tribes. The Inuit have named the plant ‘Suputit’ when it’s in the stage of seeding, and its young leaves, known as ‘uqaujait’, were traditionally consumed along with blubber. The plant also had a unique use in mitigating the unpleasant taste of rancid blubber or oil. It was combined with these substances and chewed akin to gum. When paired with berries, this mixture could be transformed into a kind of dessert resembling pudding. The roots of the Arctic willow once peeled and bitten, have been used for alleviating throat soreness.

In addition to its dietary uses, the twigs of the Arctic willow serve as an important source of fuel, and the withered flowers, known as suputiit, are combined with moss to create the wick for the kudlik, a traditional oil lamp. The plant has a history of medicinal applications, including providing relief from toothaches, assisting in the cessation of bleeding, and acting as a remedy for digestive issues such as diarrhea and indigestion. It is also used as a topical treatment for wounds in the form of a poultice.

The Arctic willow is not just notable for its practical uses but also its impressive nutritional profile. It’s packed with vitamin C, with just a single young leaf providing as much as 7 to 10 times the amount found in an orange. The young shoots, with the exception of the bark, can be eaten raw, which includes those that are found underground. Beyond human use, the Arctic willow is also an important food source for arctic wildlife such as muskox and hares, indicating its crucial role in maintaining the ecosystem of the Arctic.

Identification and Information

Arctic willow, scientifically known as Salix arctica, is a dwarf shrub with a unique creeping growth pattern, often forming expansive mats that radiate from a single central stem. The plant typically grows to a height of between 3-25 cm (1-10 in) with its stems, which can be erect or trailing, showcasing a reddish-brown or yellow-brown hue.

The leaves of the Arctic willow are pretty diverse in their shape, ranging from narrowly to broadly elliptic, circular, or obovate (egg-shaped). The upper surface of the leaf is typically smooth and of a dark green color, while the lower surface is paler with a coating of long fine hairs. The petioles of the leaves vary in length, anywhere from 2-34 mm.

The flowering structures, or catkins, of Salix arctica are cylindrical and bloom concurrently with the emergence of the leaves. The plant is dioecious, meaning each plant either bears male or female catkins. The female catkins measure 3-7 cm (1-2.75 in) in length, often have a very hairy texture, and feature pink or reddish filaments and dark purple anthers. In contrast, the male catkins are smaller, about 2.5-5 cm (1-2 in) in length, also hairy, and display a yellow color. Interestingly, female plants tend to be more common than male ones, a characteristic trait observed across willow species.

The Arctic willow has developed a set of unique adaptations that allow it to flourish in the challenging conditions of the Arctic tundra. These include a shallow root structure that facilitates nutrient uptake from the thin layer of arctic soil, a spreading growth pattern that enables efficient resource acquisition, and wooly catkins that trap heat, thus aiding in survival and reproduction in the harsh cold climate.

Identification can be difficult due to the common hybridization of willow species (see note below).

Distribution and Habitat

The Arctic willow displays a circumpolar distribution with a widespread presence throughout the Arctic region. This includes vast areas of Alaska, the entirety of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago from the Low Arctic to the High Arctic zones, Greenland, parts of Asia, and extends to the US Pacific Northwest. In North America, its reach extends south into the Rocky Mountains up to Colorado and into the Cascade and Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. Interestingly, the Arctic willow is one of the few woody plants that have adapted to thrive in the harsh conditions of the High Arctic.

While some of the distribution maps, such as those provided by NatureServe and USDA, primarily focus on states like Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Oregon, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) database indicates a broader distribution. This includes numerous occurrences in Wyoming and Colorado, a robust population in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, and isolated instances in New Mexico and Utah, suggesting a wider distribution than previously recognized.

Salix arctica is a highly adaptable species that requires full sunlight for optimal growth but can survive in a wide array of environments, both wet and dry. Its habitats range from wet sedge meadows, dry heath tundra, and rocky ridges, to sandy or gravelly river terraces, floodplains, and stabilized sand dunes. It is also commonly found in early successional stages on disturbed sites such as riverbanks and beach ridges. This adaptability allows the Arctic willow to thrive in diverse conditions, contributing to its broad geographic distribution.

Female catkins in the Nome Creek Valley in the White Mountain National Recreation Area, Alaska

Classification

RankScientific Name and (Common Name)
KingdomPlantae (Plants)
SubkingdomTracheobionta (Vascular plants)
SuperdivisionSpermatophyta (Seed plants)
DivisionMagnoliophyta (Flowering plants)
ClassMagnoliopsida (Dicotyledons)
SubclassDilleniidae
OrderSalicales
FamilySalicaceae (Willow family)
GenusSalix L. (willow)
SpeciesSalix arctica Pall.

Variations

Salix arctica var. arctica Pall.
Salix arctica ssp. crassijulis (Trautv.) A.K. Skvortsov
Salix anglorum auct. non Cham.
Salix brownei (Andersson) Bebb
Salix crassijulis Trautv.
Salix pallasii Andersson
Salix tortulosa Trautv.
Salix anglorum var. antiplasta C.K. Schneid.
Salix anglorum var. araioclada C.K. Schneid.
Salix anglorum var. kophophylla C.K. Schneid.
Salix arctica var. antiplasta (C.K. Schneid.) Fernald
Salix arctica var. araioclada (C.K. Schneid.) Raup
Salix arctica var. brownei Andersson
Salix arctica var. kophophylla (C.K. Schneid.) Polunin
Salix arctica var. pallasii (Andersson) Kurtz
Salix pallasii var. crassijulis (Trautv.) Andersson
Salix arctica R. Br. ex Richardson
Salix arctica ssp. torulosa (Trautv.) Hultén
Salix arctica var. torulosa (Trautv.) Raup

Hybridization

All willows are commonly hybridized. Although, there has not yet been extensive hybridization in Alaska. According to Collet, the easiest way to tell if a willow is hybridized it will have a misshapen or aborted catkin. Several hybridizations of Salix arctica are noted in Flora of North America.

References

Guidebook

Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers, Pratt, Verna E. pg. 89

Classification

S. arctica  Pall. Taxonomic Serial No.: 565479, ITIS Database

S. arctica Pall., USDA Database

Uses

Arctic Willow (Salix arctica), The Official US Army Illustrated Guide to Edible Wild Plants

Also see Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago below

Description and Information

S. arctica Pall., Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago

(Salix arctica), Thule, Greenland, UN Environment programme – GRID-Arendal

40. S. arctica Pallas, Fl. Ross. 1(2): 86. 1788., Flora of North America (www.eFloras.org)

Alpine (Arctic) Willow, Sierra Club BC

Collet, D., (2004). Willows of Interior Alaska. US Fish and Wildlife Service

Distribution and Map

S. arctica Pall. Published in: Fl. Ross. 1(2): 86 (1788), GBIF Database

S. arctica, NatureServe Explorer

All online sources accessed August 2020 unless otherwise noted

 

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