Willows are fast-growing woody plants with impressive root systems. These common plants grow very quickly, and reach mature height after only four years!
Willows (aka Salix) are in the same plant family as poplar trees, but have long narrow or oval leaves, and a more shrubby growth habit. A plant inventory in 2005 found eleven species of willow onsite at FortWhyte Alive, the most common of which was Sandbar Willow (Salix exigua).
Willows have a well known benefit to humanity: their bark contains a traditional medicinal compound, salicylic acid, a potent pain and fever reliever. This compound was the original source of what we now know as Aspirin.
Willows also benefit ecosystems by playing an important role in stabilizing shorelines. Erosion, the loss of land to water, is a natural process, but an increase in water levels, removal of wetlands, disturbance along shorelines, and poor landscaping or land management choices are human impacts that all threaten shorelines and water health.
Planting willows along the shoreline is a cheap and ecological way to rehabilitate the area, by holding the soil together, and create a habitat for various mammals, birds, insects and plants. Manitoba Conservation Districts Association has taken on projects throughout the province involving using willows as natural shoreline protectors. But you can also plant willows on a smaller scale, in your own backyard or at the cottage, to protect your property and the support a healthy environment.
Starting willows is almost a magical process. Due to a rooting hormone called indolebutyric acid produced at the growing tips of branches, willow stems can be clipped, placed in a bucket of water, and will begin to produce adventitious roots. Willow water can induce rooting in other plants, so save your water to try rooting dogwood stems, or other cuttings of your choice.
Try it yourself! Take late fall or early spring cuttings of willow stems about 20-30 centimetres long and about the diameter of a pencil. Soak in water for 14 days, then go out and push the willow stem into the ground near water as deep as you can, so only about a thumb-length appears above the soil surface. Water is important, so plant as close to the water as you can safely go or make sure the soil stays well saturated as the plants are establishing. Planting in spring can result in better success if you are planting in a drier area. Varying opinions are out there, so try a few different things and you’re sure to have some success!
Or, come on out this Saturday, September 30, to take part in a willow planting workshop along FortWhyte Alive’s shorelines. To find out more about this event, visit www.fortwhyte.org/willowplanting.
For information on planting willows, check out this vintage 1995 article from Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources. Online: http://www.lrconline.com/Extension_Notes_English/pdf/willows.pdf
By: Katrina Froese, Education Program Coordinator