Wonderful world of willows
What is more glamorous in the plant world than to see graceful weeping willow branches sweeping the surface of a still pond? The legendary weeping willow, Salix babylonica, had its origins in China — it is often a motif in Chinese paintings. It is often associated with the moon, and in Celtic legend it is the tree of dreaming and enchantment, putting us in touch with deep emotions. It is said that if you sleep with a willow wand under your pillow, your dreams will take on more meaning and be more vivid.
Weeping willows loves moist, well-draining soil so it haunts the margins of waterways when it can; most willows enjoy a heavy diet of fluids and do best where the earth is wet.
The willow, Salix, from the Latin and perhaps, too, from the Old English word sealh (meaning willow), has loomed large in the life of man since he (or probably she) learned how to use plants to ease what ails us. Willow leaves and bark contain salicin, which becomes the pain-and inflammation-relieving salicylic acid in the human body. This was known by the ancient Sumerians and Assyrians, and willow was used in Greece and Egypt. In North America, willow was a staple in the medicine baskets of Indigenous people.
Many willows will put out roots at every opportunity. All you have to do is tuck a cutting (or even a stick) in some soil, and it will try to root itself wherever the wood touches the ground. Weeping willows, pussy willows, and even curly willows, used in ornamental bouquets will do this and often will send out roots in the bouquet water. Two exceptions to the easy rooting habit are the goat willow and the common peach leaf willow.
Willows twigs can also be used to make a rooting compound because willow tips contain a substance called ABA (Indolebutyric acid), a plant growth hormone, combined with the salicin in willow.
Chop the actively growing tips of willow branches into one-inch pieces, soak the pieces in boiling water for a day or so and then use this water to help root the cuttings of other plants you want to propagate. Place the rooting ends of the new cuttings into the water and leave them for a few hours before planting them up. They should root quickly.
There are a lot of willow varieties as the tree is native to the northern hemisphere, but one of the more fascinating species is the creeping dwarf arctic willow or Salix herbacea. This little beauty is only 2.3 inches tall with somewhat oval leaves. It creeps along among the rocks and over sand sending out fleshy branches that put down roots at each node. It has a pretty flower spike or catkin that turns out spikey seed pods. The seeds lie dormant for 30 days before germination takes place. Among the prettiest of willows is Salix integra ‘Hkuro Nishiki,' also known as dappled willow, a Japanese variety that has variegated leaves of white and cream, with green freckles. New growth is pink. This shrub grows four to six feet tall in fertile, well-drained soil and prefers sun to get the best colour, although it will do better with a bit of afternoon shade in very hot climates.
Another variety that we love is the pussy willow; Salix discolor, the North American variety that produces the velvety white flowers we all enjoy in the early spring. The plants are dioecious, meaning it takes two to tango — a male plant and a female plant. The male flowers turn
yellow with pollen when mature. If you're looking for the pretty white flowers do not buy the European pussy willow or goat willow, Salix caprea — the female flowers turn green at maturity while the males get covered with yellow pollen.
Pussy willows provide early sustenance to pollenloving bees, but the pussies on the willow can also be mashed and eaten if you happen to be lost in the wilderness sometime in the future. By the way, young willow leaves contain about seven times more vitamin C than an orange.
There is a small shrub common on the prairies called wolf willow, but it is not a willow at all. This is Elaeagnus commutate, a lovely little shrub also known as silver berry. There is, however, a shrub called coyote willow, Salix exigua, which reaches up to 23 feet whose leaves are also grey-green, at least when the leaves are young. It can be found growing wild along streams and lakes.
A beautiful silver leafed willow growing 50 feet tall and wide, is the silver willow, Salix alba ‘Sericea,' which is hardy to zone 2. It is multi-stemmed and grows quickly. Ideal for shelterbelts or large spaces, it will live at least 80 years. It can be invasive, so be sure you have the space to accommodate this lovely tree.
A very common willow is Salix amygdaloides, the peachleaf willow, which is the second only to the cottonwood in size on the prairies, although it grows from Quebec to western British Columbia. It will grow to 66 feet tall and often has a single trunk. The leaves are yellowish green with a pale underside. This willow grows only from seeds, and it has a limited lifespan of 25 to 50 years.
This is just a quick glimpse into the wonderful world of willows, of which there are 400 species to choose from. Willows respond extremely well to pollarding, sending out long straight branches (withies) that have been used in a myriad of ways, including as fodder for cattle. It is an extremely useful plant having been favoured for basket making, home building (wattle huts) and even boat making (Welsh coracles) in the past.
And of course, willow was the first “aspirin” thanks to the properties of its salicin. It was only displaced back in 1897 when Felix Hoffman discovered how to synthesize the acetylsalicylic acid in a version derived from Spiraea ulmaria. He worked for Bayer which named to new drug aspirin. Willow is also being used in Australia as biofuel.
Willlows are native to the northern hemisphere.
The creeping dwarf arctic willow.
Salix integra ‘Hkuro Nishiki'.
Pussy willow branch.
Male pussy willow flowers.
Wolf Willow ( Elaeagnus commutata).
Coyote willow ( Salix exigua).