City Farmer: The Willow Tree’s Secrets

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Illustration of a willow branch.

Growing up in Florida, I spent ample time climbing willow trees. Their long, flowing branches are the perfect place for a child to take cover during a game of hide and seek, or to enshroud herself in as a blanket of comfort and security.

Many times, while perched in a willow, my grandfather would yell up to me, “Don’t tell this here willow any secrets! As soon as the wind blows, the leaves will reveal ‘em to everyone.” Little did I know, willows have many secrets of their own.

There are a number of willow species that call Florida home, such as the coastal plain willow (Salix caroliniana), the black willow (Salix nigra) and even the endangered Florida willow tree (Salix floridana). The familiar and picturesque weeping willow (Salix babylonica) is actually a native of tropical parts of Asia and northern Africa, yet is commonly seen in urban and suburban landscapes.

Willows offer a variety of uses. High in salicin, the bark of willow trees has long been chewed as a pain reliever, and infusions of willow bark are common home remedies for colds and fevers. Willow bark was even used in the development of modern-day aspirin (which today contains the active ingredient acetylsalicylic acid, derived from salicin).

Willow has also been used for biomass and biofuel production, riparian buffers (natural barriers that prevent chemicals from seeping into waterways), phytoremediation (the soaking up of toxic chemicals from the soil and turning it into something biodegradable), biofiltration (natural wastewater treatment systems), erosion control and soil stabilization.

Willow wood is a great material for furniture, tool handles and wood veneers, and the branches have long been used in weaving wicker baskets and making fish traps. The fibers in the wood can even be used for making rope, string and paper. And artists’ charcoal is almost exclusively made from willow trees.

But some of the willow tree’s most magical features are its auxins, or natural plant growth hormones. Indolebutyric acid (IBA) and salicylic acid (SA) are highly concentrated in the tips of willow branches. When applied to newly propagated plants, transferred plants or young seedlings, IBA and SA can stimulate root growth and strengthen the overall health of the budding plant.

Willow tea recipe

Rooting hormones are commonly sold in a powder form at gardening supply stores (Alachua Feed and Seed carries some), and can include both natural and synthetic ingredients.

Commercial rooting hormone manufacturers generally throw in a fungicide or two as well.

This is all well and good, but being the cheap, DIY (and somewhat skeptical) gal that I am, I prefer to make a quick batch of willow tea for my new plants. I like it because I know I cannot hurt the plants by adding too much, and I know exactly what ingredients I’m adding to my soil. Not to mention it’s local, sustainable, free, and any other buzz word I can think of.

The Steps

1. Collect a handful of willow branch twigs, preferably the tips of branches where the highest concentrations of IBA and SA are found. Also, don’t use dead branche (most of the IBA has likely leached out).

2. Remove all leaves from the twigs, and cut the twigs into short pieces (if you feel like it).

3. Boil a gallon of water.

4. Put the twigs into a one-gallon jar and pour the hot water into the jar. Seal the jar. You essentially have just made a gallon of willow twig tea.

5. Let the tea cool to room temperature. Make sure to label the jar and write down the brewing date. The tea should be used within two months of brewing.

6. To use for propagated plants (see note on propagation), pour the willow water into a vase or jar, and place fresh plant cuttings in it like flowers in a vase. Or, pour the water directly onto the soil of a potted plant or in your garden bed. Watering cuttings or young plants a couple of times should be sufficient, and within a couple weeks you should notice substantial root growth.

A quick note about propagation

Plant propagation is the process of growing a new plant from a part of an older plant. This could be as simple as allowing a plant to flower and produce seeds (sexual propagation). Or, it could mean literally cutting off a piece of the parent plant and allowing the cutting to produce new roots, stems or both in either a soil or water medium (asexual propagation). Bromeliads (air plants like Spanish moss) and succulents (like aloe or cactus plants) are very good asexual propagators, while garden veggies (broccoli, carrots, and any others that flower) generally propagate sexually.

Illustration by Krissy Abdullah.

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2 Comments

  • March 30, 2012

    Anne

    I remember hanging out in a willow tree as a child too. I loved to escape in and under that tree for hours just soaking up nature and reading books. Had no idea about willow tea – what a great idea, I will try it.

  • January 7, 2013

    Rob Jamieson

    Great artical, have you ever come across a white powdery fungus like covering on wicker baskets ?

    Thanks in advance

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