Salix pyrifolia (Balsam Willow)

Plant Info
Also known as:
Family:Salicaceae (Willow)
Life cycle:perennial woody
Habitat:sun; wet; conifer swamps, bogs, fens, sloughs, shores, floating mats
Bloom season:May - June
Plant height:1 to 13 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: OBL MW: FACW NCNE: FACW
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: indistinct Cluster type: spike

[photo of male catkins, first emerge just before the leaves] Male and female flowers are on separate plants (dioecious) in spike-like clusters (catkins) at the tips of short branchlets along 1 year old branches, emerging with or just before the leaves. Male catkins are ¾ to 2½ inches long, the flowers somewhat loosely arranged, each flower with 2 yellow-tipped stamens.

[photo of female catkins just past flowering, first emerge with the leaves] Female catkins are 1 to 3¼ inches long, the flowers loosely arranged, bulbous at the base with a long beak, hairless, and on slender stalks 1.5 to 3.5 mm (to 1/8 inch) long. At the base of each male and female flower stalk is a tiny, reddish-brown, scale-like bract sparsely to moderately covered in straight or curly hairs.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves] Leaves are alternate, 1½ to 4 inches long, up to 1½ inches wide, 1.5 to 3.5 times as long as wide, egg-shaped to oval-elliptic to lance-oblong, mostly widest below the middle, a long or short taper to a pointed tip, heart-shaped to rounded at the base, usually with shallow, rounded teeth around the edges, sometimes wavy or rolled under along the edge. Surfaces are hairless, the upper surface medium to dark green and glossy, the lower surface dull, pale blue-green.

[photo of glossy red twig] Leaf stalks are red; at the base may be a pair of minute, leaf-like appendages (stipules) which may drop off early or are absent altogether. New leaves are hairless and often dark red. Both surfaces show a network of prominent veins, indented on the upper surface and raised on the lower. New branchlets are hairless and green to reddish, becoming glossy red the second year.

[photo of stems] Stems are very slender with smooth to slightly rough gray bark, up to 1½ inches diameter but more often pencil thin, and usually few-branched. Loose colonies may form by a process known as layering, where a branch that touches the ground takes root and forms a new plant, detaching itself from the parent plant.

Fruit: Fruit type: capsule/pod

[photo of mature fruit] Fruit is a capsule 5 to 8 mm long, red to maroon, hairless, inflated at the base with a long, slender beak. The capsule splits into two halves when mature, releasing the cottony seed.


There are over 20 species of Willows in Minnesota; Balsam Willow is one of several common species and is typically a medium sized shrub, usually under 6 feet tall, often under 4 feet. It is primarily found in the northern half of Minnesota in bogs and conifer swamps, less often on shores, floating mats, and in other wet places. It is perhaps most easily recognized by its shiny red twigs, red leaf stalks, and hairless leaves that are pale blue-green on the underside with a network of prominent veins, and are often heart-shaped at the base. Leaves have a spicy balsam fragrance when crushed. The female flowers and fruits are hairless, loosely arranged and commonly red to maroon at maturity; male flowers have 2 stamens. Both male and female flowers are subtended by a tiny, reddish-brown bract that is sparsely to moderately hairy.

The leaves most closely resemble those of Bebb's Willow (Salix bebbiana), which also have a network of prominent veins but are hairy and never heart-shaped at the base, plus its twigs are hairy and green or darker red to red-brown, and is usually a much larger plant or even a small tree.

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken in Aitkin County. Photos by Peter M. Dziuk taken in Aitkin, Anoka, Lake and St. Louis counties.


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