Weeping willow trees, which are native to northern China, are beautiful and fascinating trees whose lush, curved form is instantly recognizable. Found throughout North America, Europe, and Asia, these trees have unique physical characteristics and practical applications as well as a well-established place in culture, literature, and spirituality throughout the world.
- Willow Tree Nomenclature
- Physical Characteristics
- Growth and Cultivation
- Products Made From Willow Wood
- Medicine From Willow Trees
- Willows in Cultural Contexts
- Both Practical and Magical
- Ask Mr. Smarty Plants
- Dappled Willow shrubs grow quickly and enjoy lots of room!
- Top picks for worst trees to plant | Bradenton Herald
Willow Tree Nomenclature
The scientific name for the tree, Salix babylonica, is something of a misnomer. Salix means “willow,” but babylonica came about as the result of a mistake. Carl Linnaeus, who designed the naming system for living things, believed weeping willows were the same willows found by the rivers of Babylon in the Bible. The trees mentioned in the Psalm, though, were probably poplars. Weeping willow trees get their common name from the way that rain looks like tears when it’s dripping off the curved branches.
Weeping willows have a distinctive appearance with their rounded, drooping branches and elongated leaves. Though you would likely recognize one of these trees, you might not know about the tremendous variety among different types of willow species.
- Species – There are more than 400 species of willow trees, with most of these found in the Northern Hemisphere. Willows cross with one another so easily that new varieties constantly spring up, both in nature and in deliberate cultivation.
- Varieties – Willows can be either trees or shrubs, depending upon the plant. In arctic and alpine areas, willows grow so low to the ground they are called creeping shrubs, but most weeping willow trees grow to be 45 feet to 70 feet tall. Their width can equal their height, so they can wind up as very large trees.
- Foliage – Most willows have pretty, green foliage and long, thin leaves. They are among the first trees to grow leaves in the spring and among the last to lose their leaves in the fall. In fall, the color of the leaves ranges from a golden shade to greenish-yellow hue, depending on the type.
- Catkins – In the spring, usually April or May, weeping willows produce silver-tinged green catkins that contain flowers. The flowers are either male or female and appear on a tree that is respectively male or female.
- Shade trees – Because of their size, the shape of their branches, and the lushness of their foliage, weeping willows create an oasis of summertime shade as long as you have sufficient space to grow these gentle giants. The shade provided by a willow tree consoled Napoleon Bonaparte when he was exiled to St. Helena. After he died, he was buried under his beloved tree.
- Climbing trees – The configuration of their branches makes weeping willows easy to climb, so children love them and find in them a magical, enclosed refuge off the ground.
Growth and Cultivation
Like any tree species, weeping willows have their own particular needs when it comes to growth and development. With the proper cultivation, they can grow into strong, hardy, beautiful trees. If you’re a landscaper or homeowner, you also need to be aware of unique considerations that come with planting these trees on a given piece of property.
- Speed of growth – Willows are fast-growing trees. It takes about three years for a youthful tree to become well-situated, after which it can easily grow eight feet per year. With their size and distinctive shape, these trees tend to dominate a landscape.
- Water – Willows like standing water and will clear up troublesome spots in a landscape prone to pools, puddles, and floods. They also like to grow near ponds, streams, and lakes.
- Soil type – These trees aren’t fussy about their soil type, and they’re very adaptive. While they prefer moist, cool conditions, they can tolerate some drought.
- Roots – The root systems of willow trees are large, strong, and aggressive. They radiate far afield from the trees themselves. Don’t plant a willow any closer than 50 feet away from underground lines such water, sewage, electricity, or gas. Remember not to plant willows too close to your neighbors’ yards, or the roots could interfere with your neighbors’ underground lines.
- Diseases – Willow trees are susceptible to a variety of diseases including cytospora canker, powdery mildew, bacterial blight, and tarspot fungus. Canker, blight, and fungal infections can be mitigated by pruning and spraying with fungicide.
- Insects – A number of insects are drawn to weeping willows. Troublesome insects include gypsy moths and aphids that feed on leaves and sap and carpenter worms that bore through trunks. Willows do, though, host lovely insect species like viceroy and red-spotted purple butterflies.
- Deer – Willow bark produces a substance similar to aspirin. Deer often rub new antlers against the bark of willow trees to relieve the itch, and this behavior can damage a youthful tree.
- Longevity – Willows aren’t the longest-lived of trees. They typically live twenty to thirty years. If a tree is well cared for and has access to plenty of water, it might live for fifty years.
Products Made From Willow Wood
Not only are willow trees beautiful, but they can also be used to make various products. People around the world have utilized the bark, branches, and wood to create items that range from furniture to musical instruments to survival tools. Wood from willow trees comes in different types, depending on the kind of tree.
- White willow wood is used in the manufacture of cricket bats, furniture, and crates.
- Black willow wood is used for baskets and utility wood.
- In Norway and Northern Europe, willow bark is used to make flutes and whistles.
- Willow staves and bark are also used by people who live off the land to make fish traps.
- People can also extract dye from willows that can be used to tan leather.
- Branches from willow trees were used by Native Americans to make paintbrushes, arrow shafts, dolls, and dream-catchers.
- Native Americans made sweat lodges and wigwams from willow saplings.
Medicine From Willow Trees
Within the bark and the milky sap of willows is a substance called salicylic acid. People from various times and cultures have discovered and harnessed the efficacious properties of the substance to treat headaches and fever.
- Fever and pain reduction – Hippocrates, a physician who lived in ancient Greece in the fifth century B.C., discovered that willow bark, when chewed, could lower fever and reduce pain.
- Toothache relief – Native Americans discovered the healing properties of willow bark and used it to treat fever, arthritis, headaches, and toothaches. In some tribes, the willow was known as the “toothache tree.”
- Inspired synthetic aspirin – Edward Stone, a British minister, did experiments in 1763 on willow bark and leaves and identified and isolated salicylic acid. The acid caused too much stomach upset to be widely used until 1897 when a chemist named Felix Hoffman created a synthetic version which was gentle on the stomach. Hoffman called his invention “aspirin” and produced it for his company, Bayer.
Willows in Cultural Contexts
You’ll find willow trees in a variety of cultural expressions, whether in the arts or in spirituality. Willow trees often appear as symbols of death and loss, but they bring magic and mystery to people’s minds, as well.
Willows appear as potent symbols in modern and classic literature. Traditional interpretations associate the willow with grief, but modern interpretations sometimes chart new territory for the tree’s significance.
- Othello – The most famous literary reference to the willow is probably William Shakespeare’s Willow Song in Othello. Desdemona, the heroine of the play, sings the song in her despair. You can hear an example and see the musical score and words on Digital Tradition. Many composers have set this song to music, but the version on Digital Tradition is one of the oldest. The earliest written record of The Willow Song is from 1583 and was written for the lute, a stringed instrument like a guitar but with a softer sound.
- Hamlet – Shakespeare uses the mournful symbolism of the willow in Hamlet. Doomed Ophelia falls into the river when the willow branch on which she is sitting breaks. She floats for a while, buoyed by her clothing, but she eventually sinks and drowns.
- Twelfth Night – Willows are also mentioned in Twelfth Night, where they symbolize unrequited love. Viola is dwelling on her love for Orsino when she, dressed as Caesario, replies to Countess Olivia’s question about falling in love by saying “make me a willow cabin at your gate, and call upon my soul within the house.”
- The Lord of the Rings – In J. R. R. Tolkien’s beloved fantasy series The Lord of the Rings, Old Man Willow is an ancient tree with an evil heart. The tree actually harbors a thirsty, imprisoned spirit. Old Man Willow sees men as usurpers because they take wood from the forest, and he tries to capture, then kill the hobbits Merry, Pippin, and Frodo. In another scene, Treebeard, who befriends the hobbits and is the oldest tree in the forest, sings a song about “the willow-meads of Tasarinan.”
- Harry Potter Series – If you’re a J. K. Rowling fan, you’ll remember that the willow is an important character in the Harry Potter book series. The Whomping Willow is a tree with attitude that lives on the Hogwarts grounds and guards the entrance to a tunnel that leads to the Shrieking Shack where Professor Lupin goes when he turns into a werewolf.
Religion, Spirituality, and Mythology
The weeping willow tree is prominently featured in spiritualities and mythologies throughout the world, both ancient and modern. The beauty, dignity, and grace of the tree evokes feelings, emotions, and associations that run the gamut from melancholy to magic to empowerment.
- Judaism and Christianity – In the Bible, Psalm 137 refers to the willows on which the Jews who were held captive in Babylon hung their harps while mourning for Israel, their home. It is thought, however, that these trees might actually have been poplars. Willows also are seen in the Bible as harbingers of stability and permanence when a prophet in the Book of Ezekiel plants a seed “like a willow.”
- Ancient Greece – In Greek mythology, the willow goes hand-in-hand with magic, sorcery, and creativity. Hecate, one of the most powerful figures in the underworld, taught witchcraft, and she was the goddess of both the willow and the moon. Poets were inspired by Heliconian, the willow-muse, and the poet Orpheus traveled to the underworld carrying branches from a willow tree.
- Ancient China – Not only do willows grow up to eight feet a year, but they also grow with great ease when you put a branch in the ground, and trees readily spring back even when they endure severe cutting. The ancient Chinese took note of these qualities and saw the willow as a symbol of immortality and renewal.
- Native American spirituality – Willow trees symbolized various things to Native American tribes. To the Arapaho, willow trees represented longevity because of their capacity for growth and regrowth. To other Native Americans, willows signified protection. The Karuks fixed willow sprigs to their boats to protect them from storms. Several tribes in Northern California carried the sprigs to protect them spiritually.
- Celtic mythology – Willows were considered sacred by the Druids, and for the Irish, they are one of seven sacred trees. In Celtic mythology, willows are associated with love, fertility, and young women’s rights of passage.
Willows are literally used for art. Sketching charcoal is often made from processed willow bark and trees. Since willows have branches that curve down to the ground and seem to weep, they are often seen as symbolic of death. If you look carefully at paintings and jewelry from the Victorian era, you can sometimes spot a funeral artwork commemorating the death of someone by the illustration of a weeping willow.
Both Practical and Magical
Weeping willow trees are a great gift to humanity because of their delightful combination of practicality and mystery. Their large size and plenteous foliage make them wonderful sheltering trees that are always ready to provide refuge, comfort, and shade. With their beauty and grace, they delight the senses, evoke a sense of wonder, and inspire the heart and spirit.
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Sunday – August 03, 2008
From: Springdale, AR
Topic: Non-Natives, Diseases and Disorders, Trees
Title: Yellowing leaves on weeping willow
Answered by: Barbara Medford
We have a 4 year old Weeping Willow, 12+/- ft. tall and this week the leaves are starting to become yellow. This willow is full and robust in appearance, best it’s ever looked. We have 2 other Weeping Willows, not as large, but attractive trees, 100ft. north and 100 ft. east. They show no sign of yellow. Could you please advise me? Is this common and should it effect the remaining willows?
If it’s not No. 1, “What’s wrong with my weeping willow?” is right up there close to the top of most frequently asked questions to Mr. Smarty Plants. On today’s slate, alone, there are three questions. If you search on “weeping willow” in the Ask Mr. Smarty Plants section, you get ten possibilities. The problem is, the question is the wrong question asked at the wrong time. We wish that gardeners would ask “Should I plant a weeping willow?” BEFORE they purchase and plant it. Non-native to the United States, Salix x sepulcralis is a hybrid of a Chinese species (Peking willow) and a European species (white willow), and is said to grow in Zones 5 to 8 in the United States. It is weak-wooded, fast-growing and, therefore, short-lived. It has aggressive roots, can lift sidewalks and interfere with sewer lines, often growing on soil surface, making a problem with mowing. It is susceptible to a number of pests and diseases, and notorious for littering the ground beneath it. See this University of Florida Extension website on Weeping Willows for more information. Also, in case you think we’re exaggerating, see this Q&A from North Dakota State University Extension on weeping willows.
The Genus Salix is considered to have intermediate tolerance for flooding around its roots, especially in the growing season. The water on the trunk and roots over an extended period of time can lead to yellowing of the leaves (chlorosis), defoliation, and reduced leaf size. Young trees may be more intolerant of flooding than more mature trees. Chlorosis is also caused by inaccessibility of trace elements in the soil, especially iron, to the roots. This is sometimes caused by poor drainage, meaning too much water is around the roots, or impacted soil from foot traffic or construction. If the two trees that continue to do well are in a more neutral or acidic soil, they are probably able to access the trace elements in their soil. If the tree you are concerned about either has poor drainage or too much water over its roots or is in a more alkaline soil, the lack of trace elements could explain the yellowing leaves. We picked up this information from the University of Florida website referenced above: Rust causes yellow spots on the lower surfaces of leaves and, if severe, defoliation. Rake up and destroy leaves from diseased trees. The North Dakota State website had several references to poplar borers as being a possible cause of yellow leaves.
Most to be hoped for would be that the problem is being caused by poor drainage, etc. preventing the access of iron in the soil. Getting some compost or other organic material into the soil, and even putting some iron tablets into the soil would be the easiest fix. The other possibilities are not something we can diagnose from a distance. If there are borers, you should be seeing some small holes, possibly with a red stain draining from them. If survival of your willows is important enough to you, even after we’ve given you all the downsides, we suggest you have a trained arborist look at the tree. If some pesticide is called for, the arborist should be licensed to do so in Arkansas. Since Springdale is in two counties, you could also contact the University of Arkansas Extension office at Washington County, or Benton County.
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George WeigelA dappled willow in early summer.
Q: I saw the most beautiful dappled willow tree on a walk in Harrisburg. We recently had to take down a black walnut due to the wet year last year and are trying to figure out what to plant in its place. I did some research, and I can’t tell if a dappled willow is sensitive to the juglone from the walnut. Can you shed any light? And, what is your opinion of this tree?
A: According to Morton Arboretum’s black-walnut sensitivity list, willows are tolerant of juglone. So you shouldn’t run into any allelopathic problems, especially if you grind up the walnut roots and replace the sawdust with soil.
Dappled willows (Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki’) are a decent choice. They’re sometimes called “tri-color willows.” I’ve seen some nice ones, too, especially in spring. But there are a few possible down sides.
The main one in my mind is the combination of clay soil, heat and drought. Dappled willows can look “beat up” and turn brown around the leaf edges in really hot, dry summers. But knowing that, you can compensate by improving the soil at planting to break up clay and siting the tree in afternoon shade (or a similar spot that doesn’t get the worst of our heat). Keeping the tree watered in a drought also can head off trouble.
All willows are somewhat prone to several bugs and diseases, including anthracnose, rust, aphids and sawfly larvae. That doesn’t mean you’d necessarily get any of those, just that this genus isn’t as bullet-proof as some others.
On the plus side, I love the early-spring foliage (it’s nearly white), and this is a compact type of willow that tops out at about 10 or 12 feet. You can buy them as multi-stem shrubs (best treated as cutback shrubs as the end of each winter to encourage the best foliage and best red stems in winter) or you can buy single-trunk tree forms that have been grafted. Assuming you want a tree, go with that type and keep any suckers cut off from around the base or low on the trunk.
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My 2013 blog post about Dappled Willow is one of the top gardening posts I’ve ever written here on Pet Scribbles, so I think it’s time for an update, to see how our Dappled Willow is doing three years later! Hint: we love this plant!
I can’t tell you how happy it makes me when I write something that helps people, and my Dappled Willow post has been doing just that, ever since I first posted it three years ago.
In fact, I had a neighbor actually stop me at Home Depot one day, as he was shopping for Dappled Willow. He had “Googled” the shrub — like we all do — and the first link in the search results was to my blog post! We had a good laugh about that, as he had no idea he’d end up reading advice from a neighbor! And I hadn’t realized at the time just how popular this post had become.
One of the reasons the post has been so popular, is because I show you how to easily grow multiple “shrubs” with stems cut from your original shrub. Much more fun that simply buying lots of Dappled Willow shrubs at once, plus you save money!
Dappled Willow one year young, back in 2010.
I want you to go back and read the original Dappled Willow post — as I have pictures from when we first planted the original shrub, plus tons of helpful tips and planting info.
(I’m smiling as I type this to you, because my husband and I absolutely love our “wall” of Dappled Willow! Wait until you see it!)
Go and read the article, and I’ll wait here and gaze at Otto, sleeping here on my desk next to my laptop!
So. To sum up my original post from three years ago…
- we made a rookie mistake,
- we accidentally grew more shrubs,
- we’ve been adding to our collection of Dappled Willow ever since!
We have a living wall of Dappled Willow and it’s SO much nicer than staring at a blank fence!
The original shrub is on the left end of the Dappled Willow wall. On the right end are the newest shrubs we planted two years ago from more twigs stuck into pots.
We cut more twigs last Summer and stuck them into pots again as we want to complete the line of Dappled Willow to the end of the white fencing on that side. (Those pots are to the right of the Dappled Willow, and include other plant seedlings we’re growing including an evergreen that sprouted in our backyard years ago.)
We left the potted twigs outside over the Winter months. No special care, no protection from the elements like snow or freezing temps. (We’re in zone 7, near the shore in southern New Jersey.)
Most of them sprouted, and a few of them didn’t. It depends what Mother Nature decides to do.
Some of the sprouts occurred at the bottom of the red twigs . . .
While other new growth occurred further up the stems, and in some cases long stems sprouted up rather quickly this Spring . . .
Remember: we don’t bother with any special rooting solution or anything else. Just cut, stick in a pot of dirt, then wait and see what happens.
We’re going to plant these new twigs this month!
And this time? We will definitely space these seedlings– which will turn into gorgeous shrubs — much farther apart this time!
Because . . .
Everything I wrote in my original Dappled Willow post three years ago still stands, but I want to emphasize just one point in particular to you:
Dappled Willow shrubs grow quickly and enjoy lots of room!
Here’s what our Dappled Willow — next to our Magnolia Janes — looked like back in 2013:
And here they are today, three years later:
Just looking at the lack of space between the branches of the Magnolia Janes and Dappled Willow shows you the importance of not planting these shrubs too close to each other.
I have to trim the Dappled Willow back a few times during the Summer and Fall to make sure it doesn’t take over our pretty Magnolia Janes.
This shrub responds super well to pruning, so you can keep the Dappled Willow to whatever height and width you would like. Just remember that the more you want it to fit into a confined space, the more you’ll have to prune it.
When to prune? Either very early Spring before (or just as) the buds start to show — or — after their gorgeous salmon-pink leaves are done blooming. The color the rest of the season is a pretty, variegated (i.e. dappled) green and white.
The image above shows you the height of ours. The white vinyl fence is 6 feet tall, and the Dappled Willow is approximately 10 feet high!
We trim it up perhaps two to three times a season, as we like to keep the front of the shrubs fairly even with the stone edging. (And you can see that we’ll be pruning once the bloom time is done later this month.)
We also go over to our neighbor’s yard — which conveniently happens to be my sister-in-law and husband’s home — and trim back any branches hanging over into their yard as well. They love the look of it rising above the fence too!
We love this perennial shrub for its easy care, its reliability, and of course its multi-season interest. I think you will too.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this update!
Top picks for worst trees to plant
| Bradenton Herald
KENNEWICK — I’m often asked about the best trees to plant in our area, but usually not about the worst trees to plant.
My reasons for deeming a tree “the worst” is its extremely large mature size, susceptibility to disease or insect pests that are difficult to impossible to control, invasive roots and weak wood prone to breakage from wind and ice.
So what trees do I advise against planting on the normal home lot? Here goes …
Silver maple (Acer saccharinum)
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Silver maple is a common older tree in our area, planted in years past because of its fast growth. However, with fast growth comes weak wood and invasive roots. Silver maple is also a very large tree when it reaches maturity, much too big for today’s average home landscape. Plus, as silver maple ages, surface roots become a significant problem, lifting sidewalks and making lawn mowing difficult.
Ash (Fraxinus americana and Fraxinus pennsylvanica cultivars)
Ash trees are well suited to our soils and perform quite well until they are attacked by the ash borer which has become prevalent in our region. There is no practical control for ash borer, so the longevity of an ash tree in a home landscape is questionable.
Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides)
Who doesn’t like the trembling leaves and the spectacular golden fall color of aspens? Many folks love this tree until it’s been growing in their landscape for a couple of years. That’s when the aspen roots start sending up suckers, lots of suckers. According to research, aspen roots are start suckering when they are about two years old and a quarter-inch in diameter, plus aspens develop extensive root systems. This explains how native aspen stands grow larger and regenerate themselves after forest fires. In home landscapes this ability becomes a nightmare.
Hybrid poplars (Populus sp.)
Hybrid poplars are created by breeding two or more poplar species together. Because poplars are some of the fastest-growing trees in northern temperate zones, plant breeders have worked at creating hybrid poplars that are very fast growing for pulp, energy, and lumber production. However, the title “hybrid” doesn’t equate to a good landscape shade tree. Poplars and hybrid poplars tend to be short-lived (15 years or less) because they are prone to trunk canker diseases. They also have shallow, invasive roots and weak wood. Depending on the hybrid they may also produce cottony seed masses and root suckers.
Willows (Salix sp.)
There are a variety of large, fast-growing willows planted as shade trees in home landscapes. This includes weeping willow (Salix spp.); the Austree willow, a cross between Hankow willow and white willow; and corkscrew willow. These are nasty trees with very aggressive roots that spread out as far as the tree is tall and farther. These roots proliferate where water is available and can damage irrigation lines, sewer lines and septic system drain fields. Willows also have weak wood, shallow roots and are prone to canker disease. All of this contributes to making them relatively short lived shade trees (30 years).
While some trees are not well suited to the normal home landscape, most trees have some redeeming value. Willows will tolerate fairly wet soil, where many other trees won’t. Poplars and willows with invasive roots can be used to stabilize soil on river and stream banks.
Fast-growing trees can serve as temporary windbreaks until slower growing species have a chance to grow. However, the trees on my “worst list” should usually be avoided. There are many other better choices for planting in your landscape.
* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Benton County Extension.