Willow, spruce, birch -- anyone who has spent time outdoors can attest to the fact that there are a lot of trees throughout most of Southcentral Alaska, but many of these trees look alike to the layman and defy identification. However, a naturalist from Sterling has just made identifying some of these trees a little easier.
Worldwide, 330 to 350 willow species have been described. Forty of these willow species are known to be in Alaska, of which 26 species can be found in the Southcentral region of the state. These 26 species of willow are abundantly distributed and can be found in almost all habitats including marshy wetlands, boreal forests, high mountain ridges and many others.
Although extremely wide spread, willows exhibit great variation between species which can make them difficult to accurately identify. It was this notable difficulty in identifying willows that prompted Dominique Collet to create a new field guide to willow identification titled "Willows of Southcentral Alaska."
"It goes from one extreme to the other," said Collet. "Some species like the Least Willow, Salix rotundifolia , grow to less than an inch tall and are absolutely minuscule, while other species (like Scouler's willow, Salix scouleriana) are tree size."
Collet's book, filled with a combination of his own vivid watercolor paintings and clear, non-technical descriptions, was designed to make willow identification easy and enjoyable to the non-botanist.
Illustration by Dominique M. Collett from "Willows of Southcentral Alaska"
However, the book didn't just happen overnight.
"It's been a long time coming," said Collet, in regard to the five years spent working on the book which was actually the result of another line of study.
Collet, a self-taught naturalist, came to Alaska from Belgium in 1978 to study nature, and more specifically, arctic biology. His primary interest was entomology, which is the study of insects. He was researching the gall midge, the insect responsible for the growth many people refer to as a "willow rose."
He compiled many notes on willows in the process of his research and thought some of the data may be useful to willow identification. He had his work checked for accuracy by numerous experts, including one of his mentors, George Argus, a professional botanist from Canada and one of the leading authorities on willows.
"(Argus) did the taxonomic work, I just popularized it so it would be less technical for non-scientists to use," said Collet. However, despite his humble proclamation, he did admit the winter identification material was his original work.
Dominique Collet talks about wild foliage during a nature hike last summer.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
Winter identification is important for many reasons. Willows are fast growing, hearty plants that anchor riverbanks with their thick roots, creating good fish habitat while simultaneously fighting erosion, so they are often used in bank restoration projects.
These projects often involve harvesting willows in late winter when they're still dormant. In fact, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game lists the dormant cutting of eight species (seven of which are found in Southcentral Alaska) of willows from among their 10 species of plants suitable for streambank revegetation projects.
Not all willows are created equal, though according to Collet. Not all willows will thrive along the banks of rivers and using the wrong species can be a waste of time and resources. Identifying willows in the dormant stage is tricky business, but Collet's guide should help since it was partially designed with that purpose in mind.
"The book has a guide with descriptions on how to use it, as well as identifications keys," said Collet. "With the book most people should be able to identify most willows.
Landowners and landscape managers looking to harvest willow for erosion projects aren't the only ones who could benefit from the guide. The book also has application to biologists looking to identify willows used by wildlife.
Willow is a favored food item of moose in spring and summer, and is a staple of their diet in winter.
"They depend on it for their survival," said Collet. If there were no willow, there probably wouldn't be any moose either."
Other mammals, like caribou, beaver and hare, also feed on willow buds in winter, as do birds like ptarmigan and grouse.
The guide also has useful information to the naturalist curious about the diversity of the environment. It lists several of the ways willow was historically used by Native Americans, such as for baskets, fish traps, and snowshoes. It describes modern-day medicinal uses, such as how aspirin is derived from willow. It also describes some of the new research being done in regards to willow being used as an alternative to fossil fuels.
"I hope that it stimulates people's interest in nature," said Collet. He hopes to conduct a willow identification workshop this summer using the guide.
Collet is currently working on a willow guide for the Talkeetna to Brooks Range area, as well as a guide to Alaska's insects and a field guide to the mushrooms of the Kenai Peninsula.
"So many ideas, so little time," said Collet. "It's a lot of work and you can't do them all."
Collet said finding funding for these projects is the most difficult challenge.
The Southcentral willow guide was made possible through the funding of several separate entities including: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Cook Inlet Coastal Program; U.S. Forest Service; Alaska Department of Transportation; Plant Materials Center of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources; Kenai Peninsula Borough through the Coastal Impact Assistance Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and the Alaska Native Plant Society.
Collet's guide is currently available through the Kenai Watershed Forum. More information can be obtained from http://www.kenaiwatershed.org or by calling 260-5449.
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