The wonderful, versatile weeping willow

By Tom Seymour | Jan 14, 2020
Photo by: Tom Seymour Weeping Willows can be a great choice of natural decoration over backyard bodies of water.

A favorite Irish air, “Down By The Sally Gardens,” is all about willow trees. “Sally,” is a corruption of “salix,” which is another way of saying, “salicin.” And salicin is the basis for the miracle drug, aspirin. Commercially produced aspirin contains acetylsalicylic acid. But the gentler, Irish pronunciation, “sally” rolls off the tongue much easier.

At one time, most every village in Ireland maintained a sally garden, or willow grove. These were used in basketry and by selective trimming, the long, supple branches would keep coming back year after year. Also, sally gardens were places where young couples would visit on a still evening, thus the song.

Weeping willow, Salix babylonica, one of the 58 native and exotic species found here in Maine, has an interesting pedigree. A native of China, weeping willow was introduced to Europe and the Middle East in antiquity, so long ago that this willow is mentioned in the Bible and is the willow that grew by the waters of Babylon.

But we’re talking Maine and fortunately, weeping willows have long ago become firmly established.

Willow Requirements

Willows rank among the easiest of trees to propagate. Sure, it’s nice to go to the nursery and buy a weeping willow all balled and bagged, ready-to-plant. That’s the best way to get a quick-start on having a weeping willow growing on your land. But it’s not the only way to acquire willows.

Because of its “weeping,” or flowing nature, weeping willows make excellent sunscreens. That’s why many generations of anglers have planted weeping willows along trout streams. The trees shade the water, giving trout the cool conditions they so need and also, insects often fall from willow limbs during windstorms, giving trout food for the taking.

These streamside willows didn’t necessarily come from pre-started trees, though. Owing to their habit of sprouting roots when planted in a damp location, people simply cut willow branches in spring, when the ground is cool, soft and damp, and drove them in the ground.

Willows need a damp location but other than that, after planting, are able to fend for themselves quite handily, with no help from us. Sometimes, though, a young whip of a willow will acquire a bend, thanks to prevailing winds and it may be necessary to drive a stake in the ground and tie the young willow to the stake.

Willow Habits

Willow trees are durable and even after losing its top half to an ice storm, a weeping willow will quickly sprout new limbs. The end result is something like a child’s stick-figure drawing of a tree, with a long trunk and all the growth at the top. In time, the tree will develop branches further down, proof of the tree’s inherent and enduring tenaciousness.

Weeping willows, indeed, most willows, have a few drawbacks, the prime one being that they are messy. A willow on a lawn requires a bit of effort to rake up the long, slender leaves and assorted twigs and broken branches.

Also, never plant a willow over -- or even near -- a septic system, since the roots will reach down and compromise the system.

So plant willows away from places where the adventuresome roots cannot cause any harm.

Willow Uses

As a water dowser, I have found that the very best material for a dowsing rod is the forked branch from a weeping willow tree. These have the most sensitivity of all and because of willow’s ubiquity, forked willow sticks are widely available.

For those wishing to try their hand at the art of dowsing, a supple, forked stick from a willow branch makes the best vehicle for developing these specialized talents.

As specimen trees, weeping willows are without peer. Their fullness and their weeping form make willows stand-alone trees and true eye-catchers. In winter, weeping willows present the most interesting, lively picture of all.

I view weeping willows as true harbingers of spring. Long before robins come hopping, or grass begins growing, weeping willows acquire their springtime coloration, a pastel shade of green-and-yellow. And along about early March, we require all the inspiration we can get and weeping willows give us that hope of spring just when we need it most.

Bucolic Setting

Weeping willows, though not native, have become American icons. Think back to those wonderful, country scenes depicted by engravers Currier & Ives. A farmhouse, with poultry running free in the yard and perhaps a carriage or sleigh out front, all dwarfed by an ancient, weeping willow, says it all.

So if you are considering placing a new kind of tree somewhere on your property, give weeping willows a chance. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

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Comments (3)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jan 18, 2020 12:37

I do not know all of the history of the Willow tree but I love the looks and hope people plant more.

Posted by: Lucinda Lang | Jan 15, 2020 09:04

Hello Tom Seymour   the SALIX NIGRA is a wonderful beautiful native tree. This is a very important native tree and supports hundreds and hundreds of caterpillars. These caterpillars are crucial, literally, for birds to survive. In addition the caterpillars are pollinators! There is a dire need for actual straight native trees in Maine and throughout the world. There is 40 years of research/data on this very important issue.

Posted by: Lucinda Lang | Jan 15, 2020 09:01

Hello Tom Seymour ...How about choosing a SALIX NIGRA a black willow which will actually contribute to our broken biodiversity .  The weeping willow is native to China. It also displaces native plants and weeping willow may soon be officially invasive. This plant contribute nothing to our broken biodiversity nor to our ecosystem. PLEASE DO NOT PLANT WEEPING WILLOW.


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