Home & Garden Columns

Green Neighbors: The Endless Usefulness of Willows

By Ron Sullivan
Tuesday January 09, 2007

I went trolling through my photo files, looking for a good shot of a willow for this column. It took forever to find one—and as you can see, it’s not a beauty shot, but a short horrow show, a big tree split by last year’s windstorms. I found lots of other willows, but always lurking in foreground corners of something more spectacular: fall color on a big-leaf maple, or a sway of gray pines across a creekbed.  

I take willows for granted, true, and I blame my spoiled urban existence for that. Willows —the genus Salix—in general are among the most useful species in the world. 

A traveler seeking water in the western plains or the California foothills would scan for a line of willows in an arroyo, because they’re a sure indicator of surface water. Under their low shade, a cool drink and a cool place to drink it: a pre-twentieth century roadside rest.  

Someone looking to make a basket to hold water, to cook acorn porridge in, would seek out a stand of willows and might have coppiced it the year before, to make long straight shoots for weaving. She’d have to work fast, get the supple twigs peeled the day she picked them so the bark didn’t stick.  

Maybe she’d cut a few inches of bark and slide it from its twig whole, in a cylinder, and add a notch near one end to make a whistle for the kids. When they gave her a headache with an hour of incessant whistle-blowing, she could chew on a slice of the inner bark for that too. Willow is the original source of salicylic acid, which the original Herr Bayer modified into acetylsalicylic acid—aspirin.  

Urban life has its willow markers too. The weeping willow, Salix babylonica, (or Salix babylonica ‘Pendula’), is a cultural marker of peaceful and gracious parks, and of a certain step from utilitarian to decorative homes, in the form of Grandmother’s Blue Willow china. I know I’m not the only one who made up stories about the people on the arched bridge, the stream, the distant and different pavilion. All concealed by mashed potatoes and peas and a slice of roast beef, to be revealed slowly before dessert. 

Like the imaginary scene on the plate, weeping willow originated in China, where it was an early cultivar of a native Chinese species. I guess the association was just too strong, though, for Linnaeus and his colleagues: “By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept for thee, O Jerusalem!” That sad trope gets the weeping willow onto gravestones, too, as a stylized silhouette, an emblem of mourning for the departed.  

Our local willows—arroyo willow (S. lasiolepis) and red willow (S. laevigata) are among the most common—have no end of usefulness too. Willows make lots of a rooting hormone, indolebutyric acid, in all their tissues. This makes then champion rooters; you can stick a hank of willow twigs in the damp ground along a streambank and count on several of them to take root and grow there. I’ve seen willow fences striking roots even in desert gardens, nipping a share of the irrigation water from the squash and beans. Wattle-and-daub walls have been known to do the same, turning a simple shelter into a live house. 

Restorationists use willow to stabilize streambanks against the destructive rush of winter flood rains, and the willows that grow are streambank natives anyway so it’s all as natural as possible. Water stays clear, soil stays in place for other plants to colonize, and the ubiquitous black phoebe (or maybe a willow flycatcher) comes along to perch on a willow branch: voila! Ecosystem! 

There’s another use for that rooting habit, even closer to home. Willow water, made by soaking mashed-up willow sprigs overnight, is a great aid for getting cuttings of other plants to root too. It doesn’t keep well, so don’t try to make a season’s supply. And don’t go denuding the willows in the parks for this, either; wild species do nosh on tender willow shoots. Trust me: you don’t want to find a posse of indignant raccoons with headaches at your door with torches and pitchforks. 


Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Green Neighbors” column appears every other Tuesday in the Berkeley Daily Planet, alternating with Joe Eaton’s “Wild Neighbors” column. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in the Planet’s East Bay Home & Real Estate section.  


Photograph By Ron Sullivan.  

A big split in a big willow near Jewel Lake in Tilden Park. Willows generally have brittle wood, though their twigs are supple.