The Weeping Willow
The weeping willow, Salix babylonica, originated in China and was introduced to North America by the Colonists. It gets its genus name from the Celtic word sallis: "sa" meaning near and " lis" meaning water. There are over 400 species of willows throughout the world.
The species name babylonica originates from Psalm 137: "By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the willow trees we hung our harps." The trees were actually poplars, but the botanical name still stands today whereas the Bible passage has been corrected in some modern versions.
Like all willows, the sap from the tree's bark contains salicylic acid which is a natural anti-inflammatory and pain reliever. References to its medicinal properties go back to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and North America. The white willow, Salix alba, is best known in the development of aspirin and its more modern derivatives. Willow bark is still used around the world today in herbal formulations.
This beloved shade tree has a short and stocky trunk with long, graceful, weeping branches that hang close to the ground. These characteristics add to their popularity as climbing trees and secret hiding places for children and adults alike.
Willows are fast growing. This tree can gain 2 feet in a year until it reaches 30-50 ft. in height with equal spread. Although deciduous, it offers a long season of beautiful foliage which is green with a white underside. Often the first to leaf-out in spring and the last to drop them in fall, it is a wonderful shade specimen.
Willows can handle most soil but grow best where there is ample moisture. They are often planted near ponds and rivers where their intertwining roots can brace the banks against the erosive action of the water. They should be planted at least 50 feet from utility lines, septic and sewer systems, and any structures. Their roots can easily spread out 100 feet from the main trunk, and limbs are brittle. They are beautiful lawn trees as long as the room is ample, and lawn sprinklers aren't the only source for water. Surface watering makes for shallow roots which crack foundations and pipes.
Although deciduous, it offers a long season of beautiful foliage. Often the first to leaf-out in spring and the last to drop them in fall, it is a wonderful shade specimen. With its golden display of fall foliage and its rather spooky sculptural trunk, it holds year round interest.
Weeping willows are prone to insects and diseases, so it is important to keep up regular maintenance and not allow the tree to experience stress.
It ideally needs 6 hours of full sun and plenty of water. Growing them along a natural water source is best, so they don't invade plumbing. Apply fertilizer in the spring when growth is active with a balanced slow release food like Osmocote. Weeping willows are typically heavy feeders, and will tell you when they need more nitrogen with yellow leaves during their growing season.
Being vigilant about pests with visual checks is very important and so is regular pruning in the late winter when the tree is dormant. The most common pests are Gypsy moths whose hungry larvae can quickly strip the leaves and leaf sucking aphids and scale. Both are easy to control. Powdery mildew and rust can also be handled with pruning for better air circulation and a simple fungicide. Both show up with wet weather and humidity. More damaging are scab cankers and borers which can kill the tree if ignored. They require immediate treatment and are best handled by an ISA certified arborist.
It is important to thin the canopy each year as poor air circulation can bring pests and diseases. Also, the brittle wood can easily split if the limbs get too heavy. Pruning the trees when young is always the best practice since it is easier to remove spindly branches and shape the tree for strong future growth when it is small. Choose a good central leader and remove competing branches for even spacing. Low growing branches should be removed before the tree matures.Use clean and sharpened tools and cut as close to the main as possible.
Annual light trimming is better than less frequent pruning when branches are thick, because sprouts from heavily cut limbs make the wood weaker and more susceptible to splitting.
Weeping Willow Reflection In Winter
Here in the West we equate the weeping willow with mourning and sadness, often seeing it in cemeteries and memorial parks. The trees are actually planted there as symbols of rebirth and immortality, significant in Eastern philosophy. Willows are also associated with the water that flows nearby and the moon's influence upon it. They are believed to be enchanted, evoking emotions and bringing psychic clarity, and have been revered in pagan celebrations since ancient times. The willow symbolizes femininity and the springing forth of life.
Next time you knock on wood think of the willow and how it's rumored to keep secrets hidden deep within its bark. As their silvery leaves shimmer in the breeze and you listen to the wind in the willows, ask yourself if it just might be the elves and fairies whispering among themselves after all. What a perfect place to settle beneath with a journal or to ponder life's mysteries on a moonlit night! It's no wonder they have inspired artists and poets for centuries.
© 2013 Catherine Tally