Monday, April 3rd, 2017 at 7:00 am
While the word “willow” may conjure a specific image in your mind, the willow genus, Salix, is very diverse in nature, representing a variety of trees and shrubs that span the globe, primarily in temperate and cold climates of the northern hemisphere. They thrive primarily in moist to wet areas in sun to shade and have been used by humans for centuries. When you take a closer look at willows, it’s easy to see why we value these plants.
When we look at what Salix do for our wallets, an initial investment could range anywhere from a free plant (or cutting) to a several hundred dollar tree. All of this depends on initial tree size and variety, but long term savings can easily amount to thousands of dollars over several decades based on placement. As most willows tend to have a medium to fast growth rate, the savings from shade and wind protection will become obvious within a short number of years. This is one reason why shrub willows make an excellent choice for screening and windbreaks – they grow very quickly which can save on heating or otherwise prevent damage to more sensitive (or expensive) plants. As they’ll also cut down on noise it may also save you money on aspirin.
While I’m kind of kidding about saving money on pain killers, willows do contain salicylic acid, which is a precursor to aspirin. Willow bark has actually been used as a natural painkiller for millennia. Salicylic acid is also used as an acne treatment, though I recommend against just rubbing your face against willow trees.
Willows can also be coppiced or pollarded and will readily resprout. While this is now sometimes done for aesthetic reasons, this kind of extreme pruning was often done (and sometimes still is) for firewood as well as making furniture, homes, wattle fences, toys, tools, and more. Willows are perhaps the most forgiving to this kind of treatment due to their rapid growth rate. If you’re regularly doing this kind of extreme pruning, it is wise to also fertilize as this will eventually deplete soil nutrients.
Willows offer a lot to the wild things of the world. Caterpillars in particular love this plant, though you might not know by looking. Willows support over 400 types of caterpillar including the viceroy and red spotted purple. The caterpillars that feed on the leaves of willows are incredibly valuable to many birds species such as chickadees, grosbeaks, nuthatches, orioles, warblers and woodpeckers. These soft bodies caterpillars act as an important food source to baby birds that cannot yet digest seeds. These trees and shrubs also offer nesting opportunities for those same birds. It’s not just the birds, but also the bees that benefit. When other nectar sources are not readily available, many bees take advantage of the pollen and nectar on willow catkins to sustain themselves.
One of the most fascinating things about plants in the genus Salix is that they can be so easy to propagate! If you ever have access to a willow in spring, try cutting some branches, about a foot long and of pencil thickness, and place them a few inches deep into a pot full of soil. Keep the soil moist and within a few weeks you will likely see growth. While some species don’t set roots very well, most will root quite enthusiastically. This can usually be done in a vase as well. This is a fun experiment to do with kids. Try changing up some of the variables like amount of light or size of the branches and see what happens!
Growing up the child of Polish immigrants, every Easter was full of both Polish and American traditions. The one I recall most vividly was when my mother would go out to collect pussy willow branches from the tree outside. While she typically just used them for decoration or had them blessed the Saturday before the Easter Holiday, it is a tradition in many Slavic countries to have them blessed beside (or instead of) palms the Sunday before. Willow branches can be considered a metaphor for Easter – the flowers erupt from the seemingly dry branches. It’s a symbol of resurrection and the start of spring.
The fuzzy catkins of Salix discolor.
Fundamentally, willows are great plants, especially for wet spots. They are useful in crafting and saving money. They are kind to wildlife and fun for kids. For me, the white fluffy catkins of willows remind me of home. Beyond that, there are few pleasures quite like resting under a willow on a warm spring day as the breeze flies through the branches and over the leaves.