Willows are fast growing, deciduous trees of the genus Salix, that are mostly native to the temperate areas of the Northern hemisphere, growing in regions with moist soils, but are adaptable to almost any soil conditions.
The Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica) pictured above is one of the most recognisable willow trees worldwide. It’s quite unmistakable with its characteristic graceful, pendulous weeping branches, short trunk, broad rounded crown, and thin narrow leaves, often with paler undersides.
These incredibly useful trees are valued for their use as shade trees, for erosion control, timber production, and as a source of medicine. This article will detail all the possible uses in five broad categories, to provide plenty of ideas on how to make the most of this natural, renewable resource.
1. Source of Medicine
The use of willow bark dates back thousands of years, to the time of Hippocrates (400 BC) when patients were advised to chew on the bark to reduce fever and inflammation. Willow bark has been used throughout the centuries in China and Europe and continues to be used today for the treatment of pain (particularly low back pain and osteoarthritis), headache, and inflammatory conditions such as bursitis and tendinitis.
The bark of white willow contains salicin, which is a chemical similar to Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid). It is thought to be responsible for the pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects of the herb. In fact, in the 1800s, salicin was used to develop aspirin. White willow appears to be slower than aspirin to bring pain relief, but its effects may last longer.
2. Source of Material for Construction and Manufacturing
Willow wood is used to make furniture, tool handles, wood veneers, and toys. It is used in wood turning as it is easily worked and is also used to make cricket bats.
Willows are a source of wicker for basketry (weaving of wicker baskets) and for making fish traps.
The wood of a willow can also be used as a source of fibre for making rope, string and paper.
Charcoal used by artists is exclusively made from the wood of willows. All charcoal is made by burning wood in the absence of oxygen, when wood is burnt in air it just becomes ash, which has completely different properties!
3. Source of Energy
Willow is grown for biomass, a renewable energy source which reduces the need for fossil fuels and petroleum products. Willow can be converted into a variety of sustainable environmentally friendly resources, including:
- heat and electricity by direct combustion, co-firing with coal, and gasification
- biodegradable plastics and other polymers
Willows are an ideal source of biomass because:
- Willows are easily propagated from unrooted cuttings.
- High yields can be obtained in a few years.
- Willow genetic diversity and short breeding cycle can be utilized to produce improved varieties.
- Willows vigorously re-sprout after each harvest.
- The amount of heat in a dry ton of willow is similar to other hardwoods.
Large scale projects to support willow as an energy crop are already at commercial scale in Sweden, and in other countries there are being developed through initiatives such as the Willow Biomass Project in the US and the Energy Coppice Project in the UK.
4. Ecological and Environmental Uses
Willows have many beneficial environmental uses, and are used in the following areas:
- Riparian buffers – Natural barriers that prevent chemicals from entering streams, ponds, and lakes.
- Phytoremediation – Willows clean up toxins from contaminated sites.
- Wastewater management (biofiltration) – Willows filter contaminants from wastewater and can be used in ecological wastewater treatment systems.
- Environmental protection and preservation – Willows are often used for land reclamation, streambank stabilisation (bioengineering), slope stabilisation, soil erosion control, shelterbelt and windbreak construction, soil building, and soil reclamation.
- Environmental reconstruction – Willows are used for constructing wetlands and wildlife habitat.
- Gardening – Willows are used for in the construction of hedges, ‘living fences’ and other living garden structures and general landscaping.
- Living snow fences – Strategically planted willows trap drifting snow.
- Farming – Willows can used by farmers as an animal forage to feed their stock.
5. Horticultural Uses
Willow bark contains natural plant growth hormones which can be used for rooting new cuttings. A home-made rooting hormone can easily be made from young yellow or green willow branches, see the article – Home Made Plant Rooting Hormone – Willow Water
Willow trees are very easy to propagate from any size cutting.
- A broken willow branch left in water will very quickly grow roots.
- Willows can successfully root from very thick pieces of stem as thick as a human thigh when put into damp ground. This method of willow propagation is known as taking ‘trunk cuttings’.
- Willow cuttings can even grow if put in the ground upside-down!
These trees are also very fast growing. Coppicing a willow (cutting it back to ground level) will result in numerous rods growing from the base that will grow at an amazing rate of 1.2 – 3.0m (4 – 10′) in a single season.
- University of Maryland Medical Centre, Medical Reference – Complementary Medicine – Willow Bark)
- College of Environmental Science and Forestry – The Willow Biomass Project)