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Willow (Salix species)

Last week it snowed.

In April.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I live in a state where we have fires in summer, if things aren’t wet enough, and where wells run dry. So I’m not complaining. I’m just saying, we’re about a month behind where we often are this time of year.

The cranes knew it: sandhill cranes fly over at the very beginning of every spring and fall, and they didn’t start until later than usual; I saw the last flight a month ago. The bulbs all knew it; my first daffodils are just fading, when in other years I’d be in the midst of the full spurt of tulips.

And the willows knew it.

Willows are a tree people tend to pass off for most of the year. Oh, there are basket-weavers who keep an eye on their coppices (coppicing is when you prune the willows severely, so that they grow straight and slender, young and smooth and whippy, best for weaving). And there are the famous weeping willows that get celebrated in song and story, most noticeably on blue willowware.

But mostly people pass by the willows; they are often scrubby trees that make disreputable-looking branchy knots with the other creekside, soggy-land shrubs. I’m not even sure of the identity of my own willows (and I’m the kind of person who usually checks). They may be red willows, or one of 14 other species that my usually-reliable Sierra Nevada Natural History lumps together, pictureless and undescribed.

This is the only time of year that most people pay attention to willows, and I know the reason why: their catkins.

You can see several stages of catkin pollination, here

With only soaproot, chickweed, and bittercress doing anything in the garden, it’s wonderful to see any flower.

And there’s something about the furry, quilted texture of willow catkins that’s especially appealing. Maybe the furriness gives us a sense of warmth, subconsciously?

Whatever the appeal, every year I have to go out and cut pussywillows, and bring them in.

In the hothouse of the bottle on my kitchen windowsill, they make little leaves way before they appear on the outside trees.

You can’t see it, but they are making a tangle of roots in the bottom, as well. Willows are notorious for their rooting powers; there are stories (maybe apocryphal, maybe not) of European Americans bringing willow switches from their homes in the east, over the Oregon trail to the west coast, where they stuck them in the ground and sprouted them.

Maybe. I have rooted a willow cutting I left in a bag for a month. (Not a new technique; I just forgot it.)

But I’m going to get the best use out of my willows later on, when I’m taking cuttings. Willow water is famous for helping plants to root; there’s a substance in them called auxin (found in high concentration in tip growth, and used in commercial rooting compounds) which stimulates root growth.

If you want to read more about it, there’s an article by the reliable Fine Gardening here.

Maybe if I had read that article earlier, I would have had more spectacular results. My  laissez-faire attitude: get a five-gallon bucket, put a lot of water in it, cut up a lot of new willow stems (the ones with the smooth skins, not the ones with the rough bark), and let them soak. When I want to water in transplants, I use that water, and I use it on plants that look less than well-established, too. When the water level gets low, I top it up. Sometimes I add more stems. Most of the time, to be honest, the whole thing dries up until next year.

I cut willow stems every year. Because, like willows catkins, they subtly remind us: we have lots more flowers coming. And  fruits to follow.

{ 5 comments… add one }

  • Sue Langley April 12, 2011, 3:55 pm

    Thanks, Pomona, I’m determined now to pay more attention to the willows nearby. We also have the same things as you blooming now,…not much! The Pretty Face, Triteleia is starting, I think.

  • Gail April 12, 2011, 6:23 pm

    Lovely! I so enjoyed your post. I have heard that willow fence posts sprout, but haven’t seen it to say it’s true or not. Pretty cool about the willow water, too. gail

  • b-a-g April 12, 2011, 8:44 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your post, I’m glad Sylvia recommended your blog to me.

    I often see sad looking salix on the bargain shelf at the d-i-y store and pass them by. I might buy one next time, if only to make willow water.

  • Donna April 13, 2011, 2:34 am

    A very interesting and informative post on willow. You are so right that they are a tree often overlooked or maligned for the messiness they cause in a landscape. I enjoy their majestic form and of course the catkins too. They are versatile and useful trees that I wish we would see more planted properly in the right environment.

  • Orlando Garden Design November 13, 2012, 3:53 pm

    I am going to look into this idea of the willows!! I love garden people.

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