A great variety of wood was used in the creation of canes. If you have ever seen a cane shaft with oddly shaped “diamonds” carved into it, perhaps you were looking at an example of diamond willow. Canes were being made in the upper Missouri River valley of smaller diamond willows during the last century, and large willows with diamonds were used on the prairies for fence posts.
There are over 100 species of willow in North America, with 33 varieties of willow in Alaska alone. However it is not restricted to Alaska. It is also found in the Great Plains, the parklands, and the boreal forest. It has been observed in Canada and New York State. It does not seem to occur at elevations above foothills.
Diamond willow is not a separate species of willow; rather, it is apparently the result of attack by one, Valsa Sordida Nitschke, and possibly more types of fungus. It is thought that 7 species of willow grow cankers in response to the fungus. However because some willow species hybridize in the wild, proper identification is difficult. Cankers, or diamonds, form as a result of the tree’s response to the fungus.
The diamonds are more like elongated ovals with pointed ends. It has been observed that if one stem in a clump of willow is affected, then all of them will be. However, the neighboring clump may be completely without diamonds. At the center of each diamond is usually found the dead stub of a branch. The cankers seem to result from the tree “growing away” from the site of attack. This usually happens at the crotch of a branch on a larger branch or main stem. If the branch is relatively small it seems to die very quickly. If the branch is larger, it may continue to grow and the “diamond” is formed on the branch and the stem. By growing away from the fungus, it is meant that new layers of growth occur farther away from the site of the fungal attack. The affected area gets larger and deeper. If the tree has been affected in several places close together, then the diamonds “run into” each other with resultant intricate configurations. Pronounced ridges result if some sapwood continues to survive, or it may “strangle” the small ridge of sapwood, which then dies.
The shape of the diamonds seems to vary from one clump of willow to the next although there may be some general tendencies within a single species. Some stems will form long narrow diamonds; others will be short and wide. Usually all the diamonds on the stems in one clump will have similar growth patterns.
The bark that is left over top of the diamond changes quite markedly from the bark over the living sapwood. Depending on the species of willow, the living bark is usually smoother and slightly lighter in color. The bark over the diamond usually becomes rougher and somewhat darker. It also becomes tougher and adheres much more to the underlying wood. The sapwood is white to cream in color, depending on the species, but also on the location. The heartwood is reddish-brown. This color tends to darken with exposure to light over a number of years.
Because of its slow growth rate, diamond willow is a hardwood. Some Alaskan diamond willows are 150 years old, and one only 2” in diameter is likely to be 50 years old. If you cut diamond willow, it will not grow back quickly.
Willows, in general, like low lying, wet areas. It appears that the best places to find willows with good diamonds are locations where growth is slow and stands dense, valley bottoms rather than hillsides probably yield the best diamonds, as well as along riverbanks and lake shores, beside sloughs and farm dugouts, and in bogs and swamps.
Diamond willow was thought to be an excellent wood for stick making, as the irregularity shaped diamonds added greatly to the aesthetic appeal and uniqueness of each piece.
Diamond Willow Special
Was carved for my Dad’s Daddy
Diamond Willow is its name.
Granddad got it from a friend
who never made two quite the same.
I got it out the other day
let it share my life with me.
Guess I need a little guidance
from the spirit of that tree.
I feel old Granddad through the cane
and I feel my Daddy’s hand.
There’s secrets in that twisted branch
from men that loved the land.
The “Diamond Willow Special”
don’t find ‘em much no more.
Got to go down by the river
they don’t sell ‘em in a store.
Find a river man with special skill
who can carve that diamond wood,
with a keen eye and a sharp knife
and gifted hands to make it good.
Tell him you miss your Daddy
and you miss your Granddad too.
He’ll pick a special willow cane
and carve it just for you.
He’ll pick a diamond in the rough
and carve it just for you.
1. Gander, Bob, 1997, What is Diamond Willow? WWWoodcarver Ezine, Vol. 2, Issue 2, March, 1998.
2. Davis, Neil T., Diamond Willow Article #189, Alaska Science Forum, October 10, 1977.
3. Lutz, HJ, “Observation on ‘Diamond Willow,’ with Particular Reference to Its Occurrence in Alaska,” The American Midland Naturalist 60(1): 176-185, 1958.