Salix babylonica (Peking Willow or Babylon Willow) is a species of willow native to dry areas of northern China, but cultivated for millennia elsewhere in Asia, being traded along the silk road to southwest Asia and Europe.
It is a medium-sized to large deciduous
tree, growing up to 20-25 m tall. It grows rapidly, but has a short lifespan. The shoots are yellowish-brown, with small buds. The leaves
are spirally arranged, narrow, light green, 4-16 cm long and 0.5-2 cm broad, with finely serrate margins and long acuminate
tips ; they turn a gold-yellow in autumn. The flowers
are arranged in catkins
produced early in the spring; it is dioecious
, with the male and female catkins on separate trees.
Many botanists, notably the Russian willow expert Alexey Skvortsov, treat the Chinese Willow Salix matsudana as a synonym of Salix babylonica; it is also native to northern China. The only reported difference between the two is that S. matsudana has two nectaries in each female flower, whereas S. babylonica has only one; however, this character is variable in many willows (e.g., Crack Willow Salix fragilis can have either one or two), so even this difference may not be significant.
Cultivation and uses
Peking Willow is a popular ornamental tree in northern China, and is also grown for wood production and shelterbelts there, being particularly important around the oases of the Gobi Desert, protecting agricultural land from desert winds.
It has also been introduced into many other areas, but has not generally been successfully cultivated outside China, being very short-lived and unsightly due to canker diseases in the more humid climates in much of Europe and North America. It is particularly susceptible to canker disease, Willow Anthracnose (Marssonina salicicola) and sensitive to late-spring frosts.
Early Chinese cultivar
selections include the original Weeping Willow Salix babylonica
'Pendula', in which the branches and twigs are strongly pendulous. However, most Weeping Willows outside China are hybrids
between this cultivar, and either White Willow Salix alba
(Salix × sepulcralis
Simonk.) or Crack Willow Salix fragilis
(Salix × pendulina
Wenderoth), which are better adapted to the more humid climates of most heavily populated regions of Europe and North America. The most widely grown Weeping Willow cultivar is Salix × sepulcralis
'Chrysocoma', with bright yellowish shoots.
The scientific name babylonica
derives from a misunderstanding by Linnaeus
that it was the tree described in the Bible
in Psalm 137
, "By the rivers of Babylon, ... hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof ...". However, the tree named gharab
in early Hebrew
, is now known as Populus euphratica