Interview with a Willow Tree

September 2016 Tree of the Month and Backyard Wisdom (combined)

Weeping White Willow • Salix alba tristis

by: Gilbert A Smith, ISA certified Master Arborist

Photos by Lesley Bruce Smith

Photos by Lesley Bruce Smith

Mrs. Willow lives in the Chicago Botanic Gardens, dipping her roots into the waters of the Great Basin.  

Gil:  “Willow weep for me
        Weeping Willow tree
        Bend your branches green along the
        stream that runs to sea
        Listen to my plea
        Listen Willow and weep for me.

        Gone my lovers dream, lovely summers dream
        Gone and left me here to weep my tears into the stream
        Sad as I can be - hear me Willow
        and weep for me.”
        * Written by,  Ann Ronell
I’m sorry Mrs. Willow, whenever I see you I just can’t help myself, I sing your song. Do you like it?

Mrs Willow: It’s a little sappy. Should I sing you a people song?  

        “People…People who need people…

Gil: Thank you Mrs. Willow but I was hoping to talk to you.
You almost always live by water. You must like it. What do you do when you're not planted next to a lake or stream?  

Mrs. Willow: In most of NE Illinois there is plenty of water and because of the heavy clay soils it doesn't drain away very fast so we Willows grow happily wherever we’re put as long as we’re not in a parking lot.

Gil: Yes, many of my clients plant Willows to suck up water from wet spaces in their landscapes. Is that a good strategy?

Mrs. Willow: Of course!  It’s always right to plant a Willow. Did you know that a large tree like me can suck up and transpire as much as 200 gallons of water on a hot day?  

Gil: Wow! No wonder you like to live near water. Where do you get your water when you are planted in a lawn? Should we put a sprinkler system in to wet your whistle?  

Weeping White Willow

Weeping White Willow

Mrs. Willow: Thanks for your consideration but don't you think we got along just fine before sprinklers? We Willows and indeed all trees have root strategies that are very effective at seeking and finding water. Here’s the problem, most sprinkler systems go underneath our branches and sever our roots. Sound kind of counter productive? Many people don't understand that most tree roots are very close to the surface and they may reach out to 3 times the distance of our branch spread. Now here is one more little known fact, all roots breathe. That is why they stay close to the surface. Fifty percent of soil volume is air space.  Our roots need those spaces to breathe in oxygen and breathe out CO2.   

Gil: Wait, now you are confusing me. You create Oxygen and you consume it too?

Mrs. Willow: You got it. We trees are complex. During the day we eat carbon dioxide and sunlight, photosynthesizing food for us, oxygen for you, and for ourselves! At the same time trees use oxygen to respire, just like every living thing. Really, this is something even a sapling should know! So, as I was saying if a sprinkler system goes on every other day in a loving attempt at watering trees you are actually filling up our soil air spaces and drowning us. Your own University of Illinois says water your lawns and your trees no more often than once a week, so you let the soil dry out between waterings.

Gil: You've given us a lot to think about. 1) Don't dig shallow trenches beneath roots even for sprinklers.  2) Don't water more than once a week.  3) And trees create and breathe Oxygen. Mrs Willow, your cascading branches are so beautiful, I would love to plant a Willow right next to my house.

Mrs. Willow: Better not. We Willows, like you humans, are better appreciated at a distance. One of our survival tactics is that our branches break in storms rather than allowing our whole trunk to blow over. So you don’t want my branches falling on your roof and I don’t want to constantly be chopped away from your houses.

Gil: I learned a lot from you, wise old Willow. It has been lovely to talk.

Mrs. Willow: Yes, thank you, and think of me whenever you breathe in my oxygen.

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