Coyote willow (Salix exigua) is a native shrub usually found growing by water, like the South Platte River!
It can be identified by its reddish brown branches and narrow, silvery-green leaves that grow between 2 to 5 inches in length. As a deciduous shrub, these leaves are lost during the winter months, so you will want to look for shrubby thickets growing in sand or gravel deposits along streams and rivers (thus, its other common name, sandbar willow). Great places to find coyote willow in Denver include Commons, Grant Frontier, or Bear Creek Park. Students love learning about coyote willows on their 3rd grade SPREE field trip as they re-enact the lives of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe over 200 years ago.
A hiding game in the willows teaches both hunting skills and the importance of camouflage. (See the game in action!)
In addition to being a great place for hide and seek, coyote willows are used by people and animals in many other ways. Because of its ability to reproduce clonally (through root-sprouting) and grow quickly, coyote willow is often used today in riparian restoration for streambank stabilization. It is also an important species for reducing the effects of flooding and improving water quality. Native Americans have also made use of the plant in several ways: using the tough, flexible sapwood to weave baskets, creating dyes from the leaves and roots, and even using the bark to make a tea to treat headaches, fevers, and sore throats. The plant is also an important source of food for many animals, especially deer and beavers. Next time you visit the river; see if you can find this amazing plant. If you’re lucky you might even catch Chompers having a tasty willow snack!