Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Valuable Willow

Virtues of an under-appreciated tree family

As "yard trees", willows doesn't get much respect from me. They tend to have:
   (1) brittle branches that break easily in high winds or icy conditions,
   (2) water-seeking roots that will clog sewer lines, and
   (3) short lives.

I'm generalizing about the 75+ species of North American willows here, but those attributes should make any sensible homeowner wonder about the wisdom of planting a willow near his house!

Black Willow, Salix nigra. Morton Arboretum
Wikimedia image by Bruce Marlin
Salix nigra catkins
Wikimedia image by SB Johnny.
Nonetheless, willows (Salix spp.) have their good side, especially when kept where God intended them to grow. Many of our North America willows occur naturally in wetlands and on stream margins.  There, a dense mat of willow roots is a good thing. It can reduce erosion and help control floods.

Willows are often a pioneer species -- the first woody plant to take root and grow in a formerly barren area. They are  useful in land reclamation projects, such as land that has been strip mined, old industrial sites, etc. (Willows can be invasive, however, so get advice from your local university extension office before mass-planting them.)

Wherever willows grow, they provide habitat and food to wildlife. They have helped to feed and shelter people too! Historically, young, tender willow buds, twigs, and leaves were a food of some of the indigenous people of Canada and Alaska. And willow, though a soft, weak wood, has served many building purposes when better wood was unavailable. Basket weavers have used the long, supple, young twigs of willow for centuries. Bent-wood furniture making, another time-honored craft, also uses willow branches.

Willow bark contains salicin, a mild analgesic.  It is an ancient remedy, a forefather to aspirin as we know it today. Hippocrates wrote about willow bark tea several centuries before the birth of Christ. Many of the Indian tribes of our continent used bark, leaves, roots, and sap from native willows as medicinal remedies. The European settlers were also familiar with the benefits of willow teas and powders.

Nowadays, most of us buy manufactured pain pills, but willow-bark tea is still an effective, though slower-acting, pain reliever. Many recipes for making it can be found online. If you decide to try it, you'll have to collect some willow bark. Remember not to girdle (cut a strip all the way around) the willow's trunk, or you'll kill it. And remember all the usual cautions about aspirin consumption.

Willows also contain high levels of a plant growth hormone called auxin. You can buy powdered auxin to stimulate the growth of roots on hard-to-propagate cuttings. Or, you can make auxin-rich willow water by boiling small pieces of willow twigs. One method is to stand the cuttings in room-temperature willow water for 24 to 48 hours, and then plant them. Dampen the medium or soil with willow-water after planting, and follow up with more willow-water whenever dry.

With all that auxin flowing through their systems, willows are notable -- notorious! -- for fast growth. That makes them an excellent source of biomass for energy production. Scientists are also looking at some of the willow species for bio-engineering.  Their fast growth and prodigious intake of water may make them good candidates for cleaning up certain industrial contaminants.

Willows are unique and useful plants (despite a few bad traits). They deserve our respect, affection, and appreciation!

6 comments -- please add yours:

Laurrie said...

There are huge old willows growing wild in swampy areas around our suburban development and they are wonderful. But I was distressed to see two weeping willow saplings planted in the tiny front yard of a neighbor's house. The first year they were cute little twigs but three years later these fast growing huge trees are already engulfing everything. Great tree, but the wrong tree in the wrong place. yikes.

Genevieve said...

From someone who knows from experience -- he will regret planting those weeping willows. I hope they aren't close to his house.

Anonymous said...

I planted a weeping willow tree about four years ago in my backyard. It's approximately 30 feet from the back of my house. I'm not sure if it matters but I have city sewer system. I've always wanted a weeping willow tree since swinging on the branches of my grandmothers tree when I was a child. I've never saw a tree grow as fast as it has grown. It's an extremely beautiful tree! Please give me some good news! My dogs enjoy its shade everyday, we will all be heartbroken if cutting it down is our only option. However, I will abide by what you think is best. Loyal reader.

Anonymous said...

You mentioned that willow trees can have a short life span. Can you venture a guess on what their lifespan might be.

Genevieve said...

You've planted them and you're enjoying them, so don't cut them down unless you have to do so! You'll know when and if that time comes.

There are chemicals that you can put down your sewer lines that are supposed to kill and "eat out" any roots in them. I don't know whether or not they work well or not, but I'd try that if the sewer lines become sluggish.

Genevieve said...

Their lifespan depends on the species and their growing conditions, but as a rough generalization they're going to look their nicest for the first 20 years or so while they are growing to maturity. Then don't be surprised if they decline and die in another 10-20 years. They're not as short-lived as Lombardy poplars, if that's a consolation. I don't hold their short lifespans against them so much as the fact that they break up so bad in every wind or ice storm that comes along.

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Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927)

Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

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