If you went to the Niverville Home and Garden Show in southeastern Manitoba today, you would have found me there, clutching old issues of The Prairie Garden and asking every Master Gardener I came across the same question: “So my fancy willows I ordered are locked at the post office for the weekend - do you think they’ll be ok? Will they really be alright though?”
After some thought the experts would extend kind reassurances that yes, they’d probably be okay, probably dormant, not leafed out yet. And I keep nodding to myself even now, hours later, that yes, they will probably be alright, you know. After all, it’s a willow.
Got a ditch? Got a marsh? Got yourself a riparian landscape? (Riparian is a lovely word, means the ecosystem is relating to a stream, creek, pond, wetland, river; from Latin ripa: riverbank).
I haven’t laid my eyes on my first fancy willows (aforementioned post-office snafu, turns out they aren't open weekends!!!), but half my yard is stocked with native Salix species members a.k.a. pussywillows. After taking a field guide out, I seem to have two varieties of willows: smaller fluffy ones and extra big fluffy ones.
"Pussywillows are instant elegance, in April."
While the property I’m on has a high, dry, component of prairie habitat, the back forty isn’t as how-you-say... pretty. It’s not easy to traverse, has numerous ponds, can flood in spring, and is home to gargantuan plants like cow parsnip - not to mention snapping turtles, a cheeky woodchuck, salamanders (things I didn’t know Manitoba had), approx. 43,000 frogs that sing in a heavenly chorus each spring, and a soccer stadium’s worth of fireflies. This habitat comes to an abrupt halt at a rapidly running cold, narrow, clear stream of water we call the crick, filtered to a pristine clean by the massive wetlands just east of here. All in all, my back forty is what we would call riparian, but if you got just a big ol’ wet spot in your yard, that’s a good willow site too. So why would you plant them?
1. Willows give you pussywillows, and you can select a salix variety for showy ones especially. Pussywillows are a.k.a. catkins, which is still a feline-related name and adorable. Some of these catkins are male, some are female - don’t ask me to ID them, I am just learning here folks - point is they are fuzzy, and some are prettier than others.
"The male catkins of Salix purpurea maybe, but don’t quote me. Either way, they smelled amazing."
2. Pussy-willows are a very early pollen source. I am pretty sure up north in the prairies here only the prairie crocus is blooming at the same time (and maybe the wild plum?) but freshly-popped catkins on a warm day are BOPPIN‘ with buzzing things. Turns out all kinds of forest creatures (deer, grouse, the beaver, cheeky woodchucks) want to eat those willow buds, too.
"Check out Salix purpurea under the microscope. That’s a lot of pollen on one plant."
Photo by Stefan Lefnaer, Wikimedia Commons
3. I believe the best plants propagate at the rate you use them, and if you like making things with pussywillows (wreaths, bouquets, that kid’s craft where they scatter them all over the house as pets), you will want to cut a lot, minus what you leave for the birds, bees and woodchucks. Good thing willows grow like gangbusters and propagate like a dream!
4. Willows weave wreath frames, baskets, bird-feeders and chairs, as well as wattle fencing and living sculptures and fences. Select willows for their use and their stem colour. There’s an enticing array of gold, bronze, copper, red, violet, and hello, there’s even curly stems. Willow-weaving is relaxing and addictive: I know for a fact my husband would happily live his whole life weaving willows if bills weren’t a thing.
"Willow wreath weaving is one of our favourite things to do as a married couple."
5. Cut a 12- to 18-inch rod of willow the thickness of a large man’s thumb, shove it in wet ground about three-quarters deep, whoa, you just propagated a willow. Root out in one- or two-gallon pots and nurse to a stockier size if planting in the back forty where weeds abound, and pro-tip: remember which end was the bottom before you shove it in upside-down. Now, I’m not saying you should casually saddle up to that nice old willow on your neighbour’s property and take a snip like a complete nutter, but honestly he didn’t even notice, and willows really seem like they want to be shared.
6. Speaking of rooting out, you can make a rooting-hormone-enriched liquid by pouring boiling water over cut willow stems. Or stuffing chopped, crushed stems in to water and letting sit at least a day. There’s a few old folky ways, choose your own adventure, but the bottom line is - willow bark has rooting hormones and you can use that liquid on other plants you’re propagating.
7. If you want to dry pussywillows, cut them after they open but not before they’re too big, and stick in a vase without water, hit the easy button.
8. Convinced yet? Do we even need 10 reasons?
9. The fine print: learning how to prune willows so that you get the most whips and nicest catkins will take a bit of practice... ‘tis the art called “coppicing”. I won’t explain that because I’m still learning, I trust the internet will show both of us when the time comes.
10. Bonus round: willow is a natural aspirin.
Willow rods ship dormant, which is Latin for “looks dead but only sleeping”. I ordered my first fancy ones from Lakeshore Willows in Wainfleet, Ontario, closest to my location, and Lene Rasmussen who sold them to me is a willow weaver who first noticed the artform in Denmark, where she trained under several craftspeople.
Because it’s very yellow, I ordered Salix x rubens ‘Hutchingsons Yellow‘ for a golden bark and a whip that is good for basketry and living willow fences.
Because it runs from very deep red to a smokey shade of violet when dried, I ordered Salix x acutifolia. This smokey violet colour is my favourite colour of the native ones I have here, but so rare on my property. Lene’s site says this one isn’t the best for basketry, but you know I’ll be sitting there, cursing, trying to wrangle a wreath frame from it anyway.
"Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki‘ is a big deal in the willow world for its foliage."
Photo by Wouter Hagens, Wikimedia Commons
Because it is a standard and elegant ornamental cultivar with pink-tipped foliage that does triple-duty for weaving and living fences, I had to try Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’.
Because I don’t know when to stop, I ordered Salix purpurea (‘Lambertiana‘ and ‘Koch Brown’), and Salix fragilis ‘Belgian Red’.
Willow rods will run you less than two bucks each after shipping, which is a tiny price for such tremendous landscape use, an easy-propagating crop that grows fast and feeds wildlife, and just for its artsy-crafty potential.
Now I’ll just sit here and wait for the post office to open Monday so I can pick up my fancy willows.
I’m sure they’ll still be alive.
I’m sure they will be fine.