Propagation Using Willow Water

There are many ways to propagate plants, which can be broadly divided into sexual and asexual. Taking cuttings is an asexual method, as your new plants will be clones of the mother. The method is simply to cut a new shoot from an existing plant and encourage it to take root itself. Information abounds about which plants are best to take cuttings from, and how to go about the process, but not all of it agrees, so I decided to make my own experiment.

Natural rooting hormone

Many plants need a little help to grow roots, although some species can be planted straight into the ground. One of these is willow (salix spp.), and an effective way of capturing the rooting hormone present in willow for use on other plants is to make willow water.

This willow water recipe is based on one I learnt during my PDC at Permaship in Bulgaria.

My willow water recipe

Ingredients:

  • Fresh willow branches – use the very ends of the branches where growth is newest

Tools:

  • Sharp scissors
  • Large bowl or container (preferably not plastic)
  • Sieve
  • Funnel (optional)
  • Bottle for storage (again, preferably not plastic)

Step 1: find a willow tree, and harvest the shoots

You are only looking for the very tips on the branches, where the growth is newest. I cut about 10cm from the end of the branches.

You do not need many to make an effective rooting hormone. About five-ten 10cm branch-ends is plenty.

Step 2: remove the leaves

Cut all the leaves off the branches so that you are left with just the thin, springy shoots. The leaves can be discarded or, if you are that way inclined, dried for use as tea — see for example (1) for uses of willow tea: Weeping Willow, salix babylonica, is an especially potent species.

Step 3: chop up the branches

Now that you just have the branches left, chop them up very small and place them in a large bowl or container. Ideally the smaller the pieces of branch the better. I left mine a couple of cms long.

Step 4: watering the willow

Now fill the container with water, so that all of your chopped-up bits of willow are completely covered. Place a lid of some kind on top of the container, and leave it to stand for about 2 nights, to allow all of the rooting hormone to soak out of the bits of willow and into the water.

If you are using a plastic container to soak the willow in, it is possible that some of the plastic will leach out and become present in the rooting hormone (see for example 2). However, this does not necessarily mean that the rooting hormone will not be effective.

Step 5: decant the potion

Once it has been left for a couple of days, separate the water from the branches using a sieve. Do not be alarmed if the resulting potion smells a little unpleasant; this is for plants to drink, not you, so there’s no need to worry.

Now the willow water is ready for use and you can put it into a bottle using the funnel. Again, the concerns about plastic are relevant here (see for example 2).

Once you have the willow water in a suitable container, it can be kept for some weeks in a dry dark place, and up to two months if kept in a refrigerator.

Using your potion for propagation

Now the willow water is ready for its purpose: to use as a natural rooting hormone, to help cuttings to take root. This is a simple process, which I think you will find success with too if you follow more or less the same steps as me.

Ingredients:

  • The mother plants – whatever it is you wish to clone. Cloning using cuttings is possible with many, if not all, plant species, both annual and perennial, although some are easier to propagate in this manner than others. For this experiment I used rosemary (rosmarinus officinalis)
  • Some seed compost, or home-made seed compost mix, for example 1 part compost, 1 part sand, 1 part coir
  • Your bottled willow water

Tools:

  • Plant pots
  • Scissors

Method:

Step 1: Prepare the plants’ new home

Decide how many new plants you wish to make, and fill up the appropriate number of plant pots with seed compost. If you are making your own seed compost, mix this before you put it in the plant pots.

Step 2: Choose your clones

Taking your scissors, approach the mother plant of your choice. I looked for the new growths at the very tip of the branches. I cut these off at about 5cm long, using a diagonal cut, in order to maximise the surface area of the bottom of the cutting: the part where the new roots will form.


Choosing your cuttings


Diagonal angle is optimal


A good height for the new cutting

Step 3: Remove bottom leaves

Most of the end of the cutting is going to turn into new root growth underground, so you do not want the plant to be putting too much energy into the leaves, or for the leaves to be too close to the compost so that they rot. With this in mind, I carefully cut away all but the topmost two sets of leaves from the cutting; leaving a bare stem of around 3cm in length. I left the top layers of leaves so that the new plant can still photosynthesise.

Step 4: Apply the hormone

Now you can add willow water in order to encourage root growth. You do not need much: I simply poured a tiny amount of the willow water into a bottle cap, and then, taking the cuttings one by one, dipped them into this potent pool.

If you prefer you can wait until the cuttings are planted and apply a few drops of willow water to the base of the stems. Be careful: again, three drops is plenty.


Dipping the cutting in the willow water

Step 5: Into the pot

Now you can place the cuttings in their new home. I used my finger to carefully poke a little dip, about the depth of my first finger-joint, into the top of the seed compost. Then I took the cutting, placing it gently in the centre of the dip, and loosely filled in the dip with seed compost.

It is important to be sensitive when re-filling the earth.

Step 6: water and go!

Carefully water your new clones. I find a gentle method is to poke holes in the lid of a small plastic bottle and fill this with water, which can then be squirted onto fragile new plants without damaging them.

The cuttings should now start to take root.


Placing the cuttings in the seed compost

Here are the cuttings I made one month later. Note the new growth at the base of each leaf.


One month later – with new growth!

Clearly, the plants have taken root: so from this I conclude that the rooting hormone was effective. However, there is a possibility that the rosemary would have taken root anyway, so I am tempted to make another experiment trying two sets of cuttings; one with and one without the willow water.

Either way, I am happy with my new cuttings so far, as I’m sure you will you be when you try your own experiments.

Update: Willow Water Recipe: Some more accurate measurements

Following some queries (via comments below) on my willow water recipe, I have noted down some more accurate measurements.

I feel it also worthwhile to mention that although this recipe is one I personally made, the concept of willow water being used as a rooting hormone has been around much longer and I did not invent it (as I said in my article, I learned the recipe at Permaship in Bulgaria, but there are many more sources all over the world) and I wrote the article more as an instructive guide for how to make it than as some kind of proof that it works.

What size branches to use?

The sticks I used were from the very tips of the branches – the particular tree from which I obtained my willow was a weeping willow (Salix Babylonica), and some of the branches which I cut were actually trailing on the ground. It was only the very young growth at the end of the branches that I was interested in.


A good example of a young shoot.
(This, and following photos, by David Ashwanden)

Where willow becomes water

Once I had stripped the shoots of leaves, I then chopped them up into a bowl ready to be weighed. You can see the size of the pieces here:



Cutting the pieces of willow

As I said previously, the size is not strictly important, but it’s intuitive that the smaller the pieces are the faster the active ingredient can seep out into the water.

Having weighed the willow I collected, I made this ratio: 200g willow: 1 litre water.


My proportion of willow water

So here is my recommendation for a willow water recipe: for every 100g of willow, add 500ml of water.

I encourage you to all keep experimenting yourselves.

References:

  • Plants For A Future, 2014. “Database entry: Salix Babylonica – L”. http://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Salix+babylonica
  • Shotyk et al, 2006. “Contamination of Canadian and European bottled waters with antimony from PET containers”. Journal of Environmental Monitoring: 2006, 8, 288 – 292.

Related

Popular

27 thoughts on “Propagation Using Willow Water

  1. I’m glad to see people sharing their knowledge around permaculture issues but I find it frustrating that people make statements without backing up their observations. This is a clear case, how much extra effort would it have taken to run the next cutting without willow water to see the rate of natural cutting development? The site does it’s self no favours when material like this is put up.

    1. Dear Anita, perhaps in the spirit of community you could take the next step in the experiment as you have suggested and then report back on that. While anything from the Lamiaceae family will strike easily all experiments are worthwhile due to the spirit of learning as we venture into a new way of living.

  2. Hi Charloette.Thanks for this article, it was both very informative and practical. I hadn’t heard of using willow water as a root hormone before and appreciate the tip.

    Hi Anita. That is a harsh point of view. If the results speak for themselves, why is there a necessity to run a control sample? It is not like people are getting paid for the results.

  3. Chris – a proper control would tell us if all that time and effort spent making the willow water did anything. Basic science, mate. Necessary to advance our knowledge of plants. propagation methods, and permaculture.

  4. Anita and Greg, thanks for speaking up. I share the same frustration- how can this be called an ‘experiment’ without a control group to compare the treatment to? Dean, I agree that experiments are useful, but if they are poorly designed, then they prove nothing, or worse, spread false information. We should all be experimenting and sharing information, but if we are going to promote permaculture as a science based design science, headline articles on this website should be more scientific. The article was lovely, well written and organized. However, without a control group to compare the willow water soaked cutting it to, how do we know whether all the effort was worth it?

    1. Hi Luke, if you are saying that experiments are only valid if performed by people with qualifications then I don’t agree. If people such as yourself have the understanding on how put an experiment together using ‘control groups’ etc then by all means take that next step and then report back to the community. If someone else’s efforts are found to be frustrating then surely there must be an opportunity for other people to step up and take the next steps? The society of the future will less and less be able to step back and rely on the ‘experts’ and I hate to think how often the ‘experts’ have got it wrong in the past, even when they have used such things as ‘control groups’. At the end of the day, willow water either works or it doesn’t. People will find out for themselves when engaging in propagation activities. I have used shop purchased rooting hormones in the past and achieved either poor results or no results. Sometimes I have thought it just did not matter whether I used a root hormone or not. It is all a brilliant activity to be involved in and people should just be encouraged to give it a go and they will be heartened when things work and they will have something to think about when they don’t work.

      1. hi dean i i took the branch of about 15 17 inches long i cut it into 3 and just put it into a bottle of water 80% of the cuttings is in the water and i took of all the leaves before putting it in the water its just normal water.1 did i do it right? will it grow? when should i take it out of the bottle i dont want a big tree in the ground it will be in a big pot. any thoughts thanks. my first time touching any kind of greenery.

  5. Hi Dean,
    Thanks for the response. I completely agree that the society of the future will be much more empowered and have less need for experts. I think one reason that will come about because of a wealth of information that will be available on the internet that comes from people sharing their successes and failures. People who learn to search out and find good information will be the most successful. Even now, there is so much information available, it takes constant vigilance to weed out the good from the bad.

    In an experiment it is often important to have a ‘control group’. A control group is a fancy way of saying that one portion of the experiment was left alone so that you can compare your results. For example, in this study, if the author has chosen to do 20 cuttings with willow, the control group would have been treated exactly the same, except without the willow water. Then if 18 rooted for each one, we’d realize that the willow water wasn’t very helpful, as least for rosemary cuttings. The author even mentions this “However, there is a possibility that the rosemary would have taken root anyway, so I am tempted to make another experiment trying two sets of cuttings; one with and one without the willow water.” That is what I really would have wanted to see. I have heard so many times from people saying that willow water helps, but haven’t yet found something that convinced me it really made a difference.

    For example, the blogger below tried willow water with figs, and noticed no difference:
    http://www.waldeneffect.org/blog/Fig-rooting_experiment_followup/

    Anyways… this was not meant to be a harsh criticism of the author. I think she did a fabulous job explaining a way of making willow water. However, I am feeling a bit critical of the editor of the site. He or she shouldn’t publish stuff that makes claims such as, “Many plants need a little help to grow roots, although some species can be planted straight into the ground. One of these is willow (salix spp.), and an effective way of capturing the rooting hormone present in willow for use on other plants is to make willow water,” without having the research done to prove it. If the article had instead said something along the lines of: “We want someone to test this willow water recipe and see whether it works, please get back to us”, I would not take issue with it. But to promote stuff and say it’s effective when you don’t actually know undermines your credibility.

    Whenever we try something new, we should try as much as possible to leave a small area alone so that we know if our efforts are really making a difference. The more we have to compare, the more we can decide what is useful and what is unnecessary.

    1. Well said Luke. I am mindful of people being new to things once they have been introduced to permaculture, so when I see someone having a go, I just think about the excitement they must feel to be doing things like propagation just as I was when I began to learn about propagation, (it was my favourite subject in Horticulture). I also feel that if there is a criticism to be made then that is just an opportunity for someone else to step up and continue the experiment. It is all a learning curve. When it comes to propagation, I know that the Hort world gets a bit too stuck up on what the rules in propagation are. In the past when I have done propagation at the Botanic gardens, we all had to make sure that we were practising sterile conditions, we would be using root hormones, and then make sure that the cuttings were to the right size and without a flower on the end, and then cut back the leaves etc, and this was all for Salvias, more often than not! Then I would go home and take cuttings from my pineapple sage and stick them all in the ground by opening a gap with my spade. It didn’t matter whether the cuttings had flowers on the end or not, I got a 100% strike rate! So, I am little cynical about how fussy we can get when it comes to propagation. Just give it a go, and see what happens, I reckon. Even when we practice sterile conditions and follow the rules and do everything scientific, we can still get failures. Either way, there is usually enough successes to get on with the job. I reckon that Craig does a great job for PRI and it is one of the few places on the net where I can find the good news and the solutions. PRI and Permaculture in general has got more people talking about how to live and practice food production, energy efficiency and questioning political systems, than anything else that I know of in recent history and I reckon I am pretty grateful for that. As Big Kev, used to say when selling his cleaning products, I’m excited! In permaculture we have a lot to be excited about.

  6. Every time one of us criticizes poor methodology on an “experiment” here on PRI, out of the woodwork comes people trying to turn our simple argument into “not everybody works in a lab” or “not everybody’s an expert”.

    All we’re asking is: If you’re going to test something, do half with the thing you’re testing, and half without. Compare.

    This simple bit of science literacy is critical for permaculture and permaculturalists to be taken seriously by scientists and others.

    1. Sorry Greg but whether you like it or not, not everyone works in a lab. That is a fact that you can’t avoid.

      1. You’re not even reading my comments carefully. What you anti-science folks always trot out is “not everyone works in a lab”. Which is exactly what I said you’d do, and there you go doing it.

        What I, and others, are asking for is for basic science to be followed in experiments like this – before claiming something works, test it by having a ‘control group’ which doesn’t get the willow water applied.

        A lot of time and money are wasted by people trying the same things out, when a little testing could save us that time and money AND keep permaculture’s credibility with the ecologists, biologists, soil scientists, botanists, reforesters, etc. intact.

        No lab. No degree. No education. No problem. Don’t claim that I’m saying we all need that before writing a little article. I’m claiming that basic science needs to be followed – with a good test – before claiming something “works”.

        I bet the author planted on a certain day of the week too… maybe THAT explains the great strike rate? Or the moon phase was waning in a Saturn ascension?

        C’mon other people who paid attention in science class. Help me out here.

        1. Ah, yes I did read your comment carefully and I am just not that fussed with your argument. Good luck to you Greg, you want to come from a position of impatience and dish out the insult that I have come from out of the woodwork, then your gift of impatience can stay with you, I am not accepting your gift. I prefer to come from a position of understanding. My thought process when I read the article was that a more difficult plant material to propagate would have made a better study. Rosemary is an easy plant to choose. I also thought well good on the author for having a go, it is all part of the learning curve. I think you worry too much about credibility. The Institute itself is full of nothing but credible examples of the effectiveness of the permaculture approach. While you worry about acceptance within the scientific community you may just as easily scare someone away from active permaculture by examples of impatience and intolerance.

          1. O dear, why is everything taken personally – chill guys – what is important is does willow water work or not and for that you need to do a little experimenting

    2. How extraordinary that people would make such rigid demands on a site that generally supplies us with some wonderful information and food for thought when you could just go out and do the experiment yourself. We are only talking about propagation here. This is not an experiment about whether plants communicate with each other or not. The issue of propagation has long since been worked out and it is not that hard that it demands such rigid science from someone offering information for free. Willow water is just a thought, take the next step yourself, you do not need to depend on others to work it out for you. The fact that you and others have been able to work out that the experiment needs more attention means that the author has made it obvious that, that question has been left open. If you need a more rigid science and service then go and find your local lab and hand over the dollars for that service. Otherwise…do it yourself.

  7. Well here is one plantsmans take on cuttings
    http://www.plantsmanscorner.co.uk/journal-articles/967-seed-sowing-2-4.html

    I do not use seed or cutting compost, it is gutless and prone to compaction, I just use a general potting mix, however I am also a great advocate for the use of a topping substrate. I use a 50-50 mix of 6mm horticultural grit and perlite. The later is a non crystal (amorphous) volcanic glass that holds moisture while being sterile therefor not prone to fungus or molds. The grit it there for free drainage and to add weight. This 50-50 mix is the sole material I use for cuttings of any form. Again, I do not use compost at all for cuttings.

    As he is making a living out of raising plants for sale I’d hazard a guess he knows what he is on about.
    Malcolm has a video channel on Youtube which is well worth a browse through.

  8. Great article Charlotte thanks for spreading this method that should be incorporated into every organic nursery system.

    For those who seeking results based on scientific experimentation.

    I’ve done a number of experiments in a nursery setting with control, willow water and synthetic rooting hormone of semi hardwood cuttings, and observed their relationship with living and sterile mediums. In my observations, I found that willow water stimulates strike rate and root growth, more so than the controlled subject not treated with any root growth stimulation, while also having a greater success rate than synthetic rooting hormone.

    I hypothesised the success of willow water over synthetic rooting hormone is a result of the detrimentally high sulphur content of synthetic rooting hormone which once absorbed by the cutting, produces unnaturally dense cell walls in the cuttings newly formed hair roots. This prevents the symbiotic insertion of fungi hyphae into the root hairs. The net result of this is that the cuttings and beneficial fungi can’t establish a symbiotic relationship in the small window in which cuttings have the complex sugars to symbiotically exchange and form this vital symbiotic relationship. Once this window has passed this exchange cannot occur creating a void in which parasitic micro-organisms exploit, resulting in greatly reduced success rates. My results concluded that willow water does not prevent symbiotic fungi exchange, greater percentage of vigor and success rate was observed as a result.

  9. For those subscribed to this comment thread on Willow Water, Charlotte has kindly sent through an update to answer some questions in this thread, and that were sent to me via email. Look for the section in the latter part of the article above, titled: Update: Willow Water Recipe: Some more accurate measurements

  10. I note from previous comments that the hormone extracted is from the bark. Would it then be an advantage to peel the bark from the wood prior to sooking? Just a thought.

  11. Thank you for sharing this technique. I am anxious to try willow hormone with my cuttings. I will be using Desert Willow as my hormone source and Lantana for the parent plant. Looking forward to the results. Thanks for the information.

  12. Read other comments. I do not have a formal degree in horticulture; my grandmother, who lived to 103, my mother and myself have all used this method and it has always worked.

  13. I started using Willow Water 40 years ago with great success, for rooting cuttings and to stimulate or save newly planted trees by using it for the initial watering. It works!. Get ready for some spectacular results if Willow Water is used properly, and used on plants that respond to it positively. There are no man-made plant hormones that can compare. Fresh raw Willow Water is one of the miracles of the plant kingdom!

    Recently I made Willow Water by cutting off the uppermost branch tips of Black Willow. I used about 3 ounces of tips to one quart of water. These were blended in a high speed blender, then strained and used immediately. I took 3/8 inch diameter by 10 inch long cuttings from a hardwood tree species that is almost impossible to propagate from cuttings. I cannot mention the species because it has become my life’s work, my business, and some of the details are highly proprietary.

    The bottom of these hardwood cuttings were trimmed just before placing them in glass jars with 1 1/2 inches of Willow Water in the base. They were soaked (uncovered) for about 2 weeks until callus started to form on the top of the branches. They were then placed in pots with several inches of sand, then were thoroughly watered with willow water. At all times the cuttings have been under inexpensive continuous LED grow lighting spot light bulbs 6 feet over head.

    Anyway, three to four weeks after taking these cuttings and putting them in Willow Water (taken in the Fall season just prior to Winter dormancy) I have tiny new shoots, many tiny branches, many new leaves, and even tiny 1/16th inch FLOWERS actively growing.

    This is a hardwood tree species that no one ever sees the tiny Spring flowers or even knows they exist. Well they are blooming in my laboratory today, and the new leaf growth is ready to go into Plant Tissue Culture or remain on the stems to eventually grow roots.

    Do you have any idea what this discovery can mean? Well now go have fun and even figure out how to make your own fortune if that is your desire. I wish you the best.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *