Willow Roots: Ecological Answer to Erosion

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Willow foliage can slow rainfall but also accumulates toxins from contaminated soil. Photo: James Bowe / CC by 2.0

Willow foliage can slow rainfall but also accumulates toxins from contaminated soil. Photo: James Bowe / CC by 2.0

Willow Ecology: Take Care on Contaminated Land

Some plants are particularly good at moving contaminants from the soil into roots, stems, and foliage. While this can be helpful if those plants are then removed from the landscape, it can become an ecological challenge if the plants remain in the landscape and become part of the local food web, because contaminants in the soil can make their way into the food systems of local wildlife. Willows are good at moving contaminants into their foliage, so unless they are being used specifically for contaminant removal, they are most appropriate for planting in areas that are uncontaminated but need slope stabilization.

Rooting Hormones: Willows Are an Asset in the Garden

In the garden, willow roots are helpful as well, but in much tinier quantities. Willow plants give off powerful rooting hormones, and these hormones can help other plants root and transition into the garden. How can you benefit from the willow root’s properties? Chop a willow sprig into small pieces and place them in a jar of hot to boiling water. Steep this overnight and it will turn into willow tea or willow water, a powerful rooting agent. Steep it longer for even better effects. New plant cuttings should sit in the tea for the night before they transition into the garden. Whether these plants are transforming a garden landscape or restoring a stream bank, willow will help them root quickly.

Ecological Asset to Natural Environments

Willow roots are a powerful ecological asset to natural environments, whether these are a garden or a stream bank. Their net-like roots grow quickly and provide soil stability and exude a rooting hormone that can even help other plants grow. Over time, the willows’ foliage creates a dense forest next to the creek, slowing the movement of water from the sky to the ground. Willow plants can play an important role in stream bank restoration, as long as they are native, and ecologically appropriate for the site.

Resources

USDA. USDA Plant Database. Accessed January 23, 2013.

TRL Report TRL 619. The Use of Live Willow Poles in Stabilizing Highway Slopes. (2004). Accessed January 24, 2013.

Vandecasteele, Bart, Bruno de Vos, Filip M.G. Tack. Cadmium and Zinc Uptake By Volunteer Willow Species and Elder Rooting in Polluted Dredged Sediment Disposal Sites. (2002). Science of the Total Environment. Accessed January 24, 2013.

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