Tough as Nails
Willow are both resilient and beneficial
Nineteenth century English poet Christina Rossetti scribed "In the Willow Shade” – prose about a person spending a day lost in thought. She opened with:
"I sat beneath a willow tree,
Where water falls and calls;
While fancies upon fancies solaced me,
Some true, and some were false.”
Most of us don’t spend the time we should pondering important things, in places where willows meet the water. Let’s explore why a poet or anyone else might ponder willow.
Salix (willow) varieties are numerous and a few types flourish in riparian or otherwise moisture-laden landscapes. Willow is a popular shelterbelt species, early to leaf in spring and late to shed in fall.
Willow has quite a history with human kind. The Celts saw willows as a place to linger and gain inspiration. The Biblical prophet Ezekiel spoke of willow as a sign of steadiness and resilience. The ancient Chinese saw willow as a sign of longevity and renewal. In First Nations lore, the Arapaho people used the capacity of willow to grow and regrowth as a metaphor for stability.
In fifth century Greece, Hippocrates discovered chewing willow bark had health benefits. First Nations peoples bark to relieve several infirmities. The precursor to Felix Hoffman’s synthetic aspirin was Edward Stone’s work to separate salicylic acid from willow for pain relief.
Parts of willow serve ornamental purposes from the child’s bouquet of "pussy willow” to crafts like baskets, walking sticks and furniture.
Willow thrive in riparian habitat, often providing shade to lower water temperature for aquatic creatures. Elevated water temperature reduces oxygen which is detrimental to fish.
Pollinators source willows as one of the first sources of food in the spring and a keystone to pollinator survival.
Bog willow is a small shrubby species, rarely taller than six feet, found on the fringes of bog (obviously) and fens. Think muskeg when thinking of where a bog willow can be found. These willows are highly desired in wet area reclamation.
There is a reason why a landscaper worth his pay will never plant a willow within fifty feet of water and sewage system components. The roots are aggressive and copious.
A resilient zone 1a shrub called bebbs willow is known for its erosion control capabilities. Be aware it is also the candy aisle for beaver and ungulates and great habitat for birds amid its fifteen-foot mature canopy.
Take a walk adjacent a stream or river and bamboo-like sandbar willow is common and important to hold soil together in flood prone places.
Once established along a wetland, stream or in a shelterbelt, willow can grow. Acute-leafed willow, popular in shelterbelts, can grow six feet annually and are relatively maintenance free.
One of the toughest species is laurel-leaf willow. Extreme cold tolerant and still productive in summer albeit perhaps not as growth accelerated as its relatives. At maturity it has a stand-alone globe shape for people looking for a more solitary tree.
Golden willow are the pageant winners with fantastic leaf and branch colors. These beauties are fast-growing like their acute-leaf cousins. As mentioned, pussy willow is the basket-making or floral arranging person’s foraging destination.
Any willow can be damaged by natural and unnatural means. Herbicide is one tool used to control where these plants are out of place. At the same time, desirable willows – the one’s you want to keep – can be damaged with incorrect herbicide use.
There are also native and non-native pests of willow. 2018 saw grey willow leaf beetles damage willow in some parts of Alberta. Grey Pohl, Natural Resource Canada pest and insect specialist, reassured those with riparian and shelterbelt interests "that willows are really tough trees, so I don’t recommend getting too panicked about the beetles – nature will usually take care of itself”.
Take note that not all plants named "willow” are true willows. Wolf willow is a wolf in willow’s clothing. While it is showy, fragrant, a nitrogen-fixer, and sold in nurseries it spreads far too easily by rhizome, considered an increaser (shows up in marginal areas) in pasture and not the same at all in rebar quality to true willows.
Back to the riverbank with poet Rossetti. She concludes in the second to last stanza:
I rose to go, and felt the chill,
And shivered as I went;
Yet shivering wondered, and I wonder still,
What more that willow meant
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