Won­der­ful world of wil­lows

Ontario Gardener Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Dorothy Dob­bie

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.

Sil­ver wil­low.

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).

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