Salix pulchra is a willow shrub with glossy-green diamond shaped leaves and smooth reddish twigs. This common and locally abundant willow is perhaps our most widespread willow, occurring in forests, bogs, floodplains, forming thickets in subalpine areas and dotting alpine tundra in some areas. Salix pulchra is highly branched, growing up to 3 m tall. Stems are reddish, glabrous and often shiny. Leaves are usually diamond shaped in outline, glossy and hairless. Leaf margins are entire. Stipules are linear and are persistent on the plant for several years, as are reddish leaves from prior seasons in some cases. Willows are dioecious (that is, separate plants produce either male or female flowers only); the flowers highly reduced and borne in catkins specialized for wind pollination. Catkins develop before the leaves and are borne directly on the stem. The pistils are hairy. Capsules are hairy. The combination of reddish twigs, narrow elliptic hairless leaves, and persistent, linear stipules are key traits by which to identify Salix pulchra.
Catkins of Salix pulchra appear before the leaves. Leaves form from the end of May to early June. Seeds are disseminated by mid-summer (mid-June to early July).
S. pulchra is dioecious and insect and wind pollinated. Seeds have attached hairs to aid in wind dissemination. It also readily spreads vegetatively.
Collett (2004) documented a variety of insects that utilize S. pulchra including gall-formers such as: Rabdophaga spp., Euura sp, Pontia sp., and eriophyid mites. He also found leaf skeletonizers from the Chyrsomelid family of beetles and a willow bark beetle (Thrypophleus striatulus). This species is a host plant for the Willow Sulfur butterfly (Colias scudderi (Scott 1986).
S. pulchra has been used medicinally to treat mouth sores, as an analgesic, and as an eye medicine (Moerman 1998). Young leaves and shoots can be eaten as food either raw, cooked, or mixed with seal oil. It is reported to be high in vitamin C. It is an important browse species for moose.
Salix pulchra is an amphi-Beringian endemic species with a widespread distribution in this region. In North America, S. pulchra occurs from Alaska to Yukon and Northwest Territories, southward to northern British Columbia. S. pulchra is common and widespread (locally abundant) statewide in Alaska, except apparently absent in the southeastern panhandle. In Denali, S. pulchra is nearly ubiquitous in suitable habitat on both sides of the Alaska Range.
Salix pulchra is a very common willow in Denali occurring at elevations 74 m to 1575 m with an average site elevation of 729 m. It is found on a wide range of slopes (0-39 degrees) with an average plot slope of 8 degrees. It showed no strong preferences for plot aspect.