Another state champion tree discovered near Rockton


NLI's Zach Grycan measures a Bebb Willow at Lost Flora Fen. Photo: Alan Branhagen

Once again, a Rockton-area tree has been named Tree of the Month - and state champion for its type - in Natural Land Institute’s Legacy Tree Program. NLI has announced their April Tree of the Month is a Bebb
(Salix bebbiana) found at Lost Flora Fen on Raccoon Creek near Rockton, IL.

“Our legacy tree was discovered when preparing for restoration work removing invasive shrubs," said Alan Branhagen, Executive Director, Natural Land Institute. Branhagen says these are "some of the largest Bebb Willows I have ever seen and as no state champion is listed, the featured Bebb Willow for April will be the state champion once submitted.” This tree's height is 27 feet 3 inches, with a crown spread of 20 feet 9.5 inches and a circumference: 32 inches. It grows 15 to 30 feet tall.

Bebb Willow at Lost Flora Fen. Photo: Alan Branhagen

Willow grows in cool, moist to wet organic soils “not uncommon in the Sugar River area and is found occasionally in Kent Creek bottom and in northern Boone County,” according to Dr. Egbert W. Fell. author of Flora of Winnebago County.

Branhagen said, “I’m not sure why Raccoon Creek was never mentioned [by Fell] because it is relic in the brushy wetlands along the creek and currently one of the easiest places to find this tree. We are
thankful for funding from the Arthur L. and Elaine V. Johnson
to accomplish this work, restoring this unique wetland from an invasion of buckthorn and amur maple. Many very large Bebb and Pussy Willows, several Quaking Aspen groves, American Plum and
Nannyberry thickets were rescued in the project.”

This legacy tree may not be large compared to the 73-foot March Tree of the Month, also near Rockton, but it's huge for its kind. Often Bebb Willow can be only a shrub, but usually does have a main stem that can develop into a small trunk. It grows only as far south as northern Illinois, but is found across northern North America, mostly in Canada. It is named after this region’s premier botanist: Michael Schuck Bebb (1833-1895) who lived in Seward Township in southwestern Winnebago County in the 1800’s. Bebb was the leading salicologist (willow expert) in America and Europe, a premier botanist of his day. Specimens of the plants he collected can be found at the Field Museum, formerly called the Chicago Natural History Museum, and the University of Illinois. Bebb moved to Rockford in 1879 and is buried in historic Greenwood Cemetery in Rockford.

Bebb Willow is similar to the well-known Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) but its cute catkins are a bit smaller and emerge a little later. It is just as important for early spring pollinators as pussy willow.
Trees are either male or female, the male flowers studded with yellow, pollen-rich stamens when in full bloom. Female flowers are more greenish, maturing to capsules that burst in late spring with cottony seed – often gathered by songbirds to line their nests. The cottony fluff disperses the tiny seeds which must land on wet, bare soil where they germinate immediately. The small leaves are also quite beautiful with a leather texture on top and a bluish white underside that makes the tree such a lovely ornamental through the growing season.

Lost Flora Fen on Raccoon Creek, owned by Natural Land Institute, is open to the public daily for hiking, birding, and nature photography, at 5565 Yale Bridge Rd., Rockton, IL 61072.

For more information about NLI’s Legacy Tree Program and to find the nomination form visit, call 815/964-6666 or email

The Natural Land Institute, an accredited land trust, is a 501(c)3, not-for-profit land conservation organization based in Rockford, Illinois and has protected 18,000 acres of natural land in Illinois since 1958. NLI’s mission is to create an enduring legacy of natural land in northern Illinois for people, plants and animals. For more information and to donate: or call 815/964-6666.

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