Bayou-Diversity (5 January 2020) During the Yazoo Pass expedition of the Civil War, Union Admiral Porter wrote that his flagship Cincinnati ran into a six-hundred-yard bed of willows under a full head of steam, “and there she stuck; the willow wythes . . . held her as if in a vise.” Taking advantage of the situation, Confederates pounded the flotilla with an artillery cross fire, and only with the greatest efforts was the Cincinnati freed to make her escape and end the failed expedition.
Of the five native species of willow found in Louisiana, black willow is most common and the one that confounded the Yankees in Mississippi. It grows to a height of more than fifty feet on wet soils of every parish. Willows frequent the banks of streams and rivers providing food and shelter for beavers, rabbits, deer, and songbirds. Bees make copious amounts of honey from willow nectar, and the narrow, deciduous leaves provide food for several species of butterflies and moths including viceroys and mourning cloaks.
In the Civil War era willow had practical value as well. Wicker ware baskets and fish traps were made from the pliable twigs. A dye was made from the bark. Willow lumber is soft and light, but not durable, and was used to make boxes, toys, artificial limbs, cheap furniture, and boats. The medicinal values of willows have been recognized for centuries. Its bark contains salicylic acid, a precursor to aspirin, and was thought to yield an inferior substitute for quinine. Ground charcoal made from willow was considered a topical antiseptic, a laxative, and a prophylactic for yellow fever. Willow charcoal, however, was most valued as a component of gunpowder.
Today, willow’s most important function is ecological. As a pioneering species, the downy windblown seeds drift onto new sandbars and recently exposed soils to prevent erosion and jumpstart the formation of a new community of plants and animals. Although cursed by Admiral Porter, willows have long been an important cog in Nature’s machinery.
(Adapted from Flora & Fauna of the Civil War by Kelby Ouchley; LSU Press)