Trees

Why I Love to Research

Lore of the Willow Tree

I have three distinct memories of trees, other than as objects to climb, when I was a child. At my mother’s house, we had a magnolia next to the driveway that filled the air with the most amazing fragrance. At my grandmother’s house, an enormous pecan tree, with a tyre swing, deposited the makings for the most amazing pies, and all we had to do was gather up the nuts for Mimi to bake a treat. At my father’s house, there was a weeping willow tree with fountain-like branches that captivated me from below them.

I loved all three trees, though I wasn’t particularly into botany in those days. I’ve not seen those trees, if they are still standing, for decades, but I can still picture them. When my wife Emma and I bought a property last year, I was enchanted to find that in parts of the forest, when I stand and look up I can see wild, “umbrella” magnolias—not the Southern magnolia I’d grown up with but familiar enough—forming a beautiful canopy. Because they are native and present, there was no reason to justify planting them. We have dozens to enjoy.

I was pleased to find out that we are on the cusp of where pecan trees will grow, and we have a large one we regularly pass. Though it’s not productive, it still makes an impression, and of course, planting a couple will be on the agenda at some point. However, we only have about an acre to fill with gardens and food forests. Not only are pecan trees towers (30-plus meter high, 20-plus meters wide), but also they self-prune, creating a hazard for structures and other productive trees.

Then, to complete the triumvirate, we need a weeping willow tree. I need to justify it, so what exactly are they good for?

Basic Specs on the Weeping Willow Tree

Weeping willows can get large, 40 feet (12 meters) with a spread to match. They grow fast, looking at about two feet (60 cm) a year. They love the water, famously so, and require plenty of it. They like the sun as well, and they tolerate just about any type of soil.

Walkway through the willows
“Walkway through the willows” by Alan Hunt is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Willow Trees Have a Bad Reputation

Truth be known, many trees I like have a bad reputation. My friend Buck often tells a story of that pecan tree, the one I regularly pass, about how a big branch dropped on a couple of picnickers, sending one to the hospital. Mimosa trees, which many consider an invasive and weed tree here, rank high on my list because they are nitrogen-fixers, have sweet-smelling and edible flowers, and can be coppiced or pollarded for firewood or mulch.

Weeping willow trees have their detractors as well. They are known to be quick-lived, lasting closer to fifteen or thirty years than fifty. They are notorious for invasive root systems that, in search of water, will clog up pipes. Like other fast-growing trees, such as the mimosa, they are also known for having weak wood that’ll drop readily in storms. As they age, their roots trend upwards, which can make them problematic for sidewalks and driveways.

The Willowy Justification Begins

What I like about research is 1) it provides me with material for articles and, more importantly, 2) it provides purpose for just about any plant. Weeping willow trees, beyond the alluring appearance for which they are famous and despite any complaints, have tons of purpose. This has come as no surprise to me, but it has provided the extra oomph I might have needed—I didn’t honestly need added oomph—to feel justified to have a weeping willow as part of our landscape. Of course, knowing the uses makes the tree mean so much more.

Half Moon Pond
“Half Moon Pond” by Ian Capper is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
  • We have the perfect spot, really. We just spent a couple of weekends hand-digging a stream-fed sediment pond with a check dam that feeds into what will soon be a revitalised and larger recreational water storage space. In the sediment pond, we left an island with enough area to plant a weeping willow tree. Water, check. It gets plenty of sun. And, there’s room for it to grow up and out.
  • Willow trees are well-regarded for erosion control, which makes it the perfect tree for our spot as well. The root systems of willow trees are dense and mat-like, and these systems establish quickly along stream or pond banks. Additionally, the willow canopy helps to mitigate rainfall from washing the banks away from above. Should we want or need more, they propagate easily from cuttings.
  • Willow water” is a natural and free rooting hormone for cuttings from other plants, as well as transplants. In addition to the hormone, because live willow trees have fungal and bacterial defences, willow water can help in protecting rooting plants as well. We plan on starting lots of new plants as we develop our site, so this could be truly useful.
  • Willow bark has well-known medicinal qualities and was, in fact, the inspiration for Aspirin. The bark is made into a tea, which treats pain, fever, insomnia, and various other ailments. It was used for centuries before synthetic versions were created. We don’t use much over-the-counter medication, so the willow bark could prove a positive in this regard as well.
  • Willow trees can be coppiced or pollarded every few years to supply a harvest of willow branches which, in the case of weeping willows, can supply a lot of material for making baskets or lots of other products. Unfortunately, it doesn’t function all that well as firewood because it is so moist. However, both Emma and I are crafty, so we’ll undoubtedly enjoy harvesting the wispy branches for projects.
  • They are good for the wildlife. Willows are known to provide food for wild animals like rabbits, beavers, and deer, all of which are in the area. Plus they provide safe nesting canopies for birds. They are also good for bees because they bloom early in the year. While these attributes are common amongst trees, willows are often listed as being particularly good in this regard.
  • Willow trees, especially weeping willows, are beautiful. It’s an early splash of green in the spring and a hold-out in the fall. Its branches swoop down gracefully to the water, creating a visual that has inspired countless paintings and photographs. For us, this tree would be right in front of our little bridge across the stream, a place we often sit for breakfast and chat.

Research Is Wonderful

One of the things I like about permaculture is how cerebral the process of designing and choosing everything is. It has taught me to consider actions and objects from many angles before doing them or acquiring them, and it has taught me to be open to possibilities. It’s the openness that makes researching trees and plants so much fun: So many of them have an extensive list of uses about which we probably have no idea. After we’ve gained the knowledge, the weeping willow has proven itself and earned a place in our plan.

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Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

One Comment

  1. Tree roots do not break pipes. Most trees, and I mean most, their roots go no more than 18 inches (half meter) below the ground. There is no tap root on mature trees, trees would easily fall over if they did rely on them. Their roots go out laterally way past their drip line, why would they go more than 18 inches down, there is no nutrition down there? Ah! says the plumber, how many times have I seen them wrapped around a sewer pipe 7 feet down (2 plus meters)? That’s true, but the pipe broke first and then the roots tasted the ‘nutrition’ in the soil and followed it down.
    By the way, plant willows in a clump, many seedlings in a patch in order to get the real benefit of coppicing, which is lots of small stems annually coming up from the stump for craft uses. Pollarding is what we do to a mature tree when you cut or train large branches for years later harvesting, like for ship’s masts, etc.
    Good luck with your property

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