Outdoors Magazine

Belly Willows

Posted on the 29 September 2019 by Hollis

Belly WillowsBeing a fan of NPR’s A Way with Words, I was pleased to discover that the July 10, 2017 program included belly flower! As Martha Barnette explained, “it’s a term for a small low-growing wildflower, the kind that you have to get down on your belly to see.”

But I already knew this. I was looking for a term for belly flowers no longer in flower—instead with fruits or seeds. I didn't have much luck. Because “belly fruit” and “belly seeds” sounded too much like New Age remedies, and “belly plant” was already in use, I decided on “belly willow”.Belly willows are my favorite willows, mainly because they grow in spectacular settings high in the mountains (they're also easy to identify). Arctic Willow, Salix arctica, is common in the Medicine Bow Mountains just 50 miles west of town. Plants are typically just a few inches tall, forming a low cover of leaves above stems winding along the ground. Being a belly willow, Arctic Willow is wonderful to stumble upon if one is used to willows as trees or shrubs—a really fun discovery: “Oh my, willow catkins and leaves at ground level!

Belly Willows

Male flowers of Arctic Willow (like all willows, it’s dioecious). Matt Lavin photo (cropped).

Belly Willows

Arctic Willow in fruit (specifically capsules). Andrey Zharkikh photo (cropped).

True to it’s name, Arctic Willow is common and widespread in the Arctic. But it also occurs further south at high elevations, for example in the Sierra Nevada of California, and in the Rocky Mountains as far as New Mexico. Adapted to short seasons, it grows slowly and is long-lived (one individual in Greenland was determined to be 236 years old).

Belly Willows

Late-season meadow at base of Snowy Range, crest of Medicine Bow Mts., Wyoming.

Last week I was sprawled belly-down at 10,500 feet above sea level in a “wet” meadow (now dry) in the Medicine Bow Mountains, communing with Arctic Willows. Autumn had arrived—their leaves were a mix of green, yellow, orange and red. Only a few plants still had intact capsules; most had split open to release their seeds. Scattered across the meadow were wads of fluff embedded with tiny willow seeds, waiting for wind.
Belly Willows
Each tiny willow seed has a tuft of fine cottony hairs for flying with the wind (American nickel for scale, about 2 cm across).
Belly Willows
Dried split capsules stay on the plants after releasing seeds. They're visible in the wad of seed hairs below.
Belly Willows
Of course most of our willow species sent their seeds off long ago, in late spring or early summer. But snow melts late at 10,500 feet—the season is short, and plant phenology is compressed. Thebelly willows in this meadow had only about two months to go from flower to fruit to seed.

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