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Tree Profiles: Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica), Part 2

This is the second half of a two part series on weeping willow. The following examines the tree’s soil and topography, damaging agents and pests, allergenic potential, cultivation, and uses.

Introduction

Weeping willow (Salix babylonica), also called Babylon willow, is a species of willow native to northern China. Historically, weeping willow was used as a popular trading item along the Silk Road. It was introduced to England from Syria in 1730. It was first described and assigned its scientific name by the Swedish botanist and plant pathologist, Carl Linnaeus, in 1736. Linnaeus named weeping willow salix babylonica after mistaking it for the trees described growing along the rivers of Babylon in the Bible. The trees mentioned in the Bible were likely poplars, which are members of the willow family (Salicaceae). The species that Linnaeus observed was the variety that had been introduced into the Clifford Garden in Hartekamp in the Netherlands.

Soil & Topography

Weeping willow can thrive in acidic, alkaline, clay, rich, sandy, and well-drained soils. It exhibits some drought tolerance, but grows best when rooted near a body of water. Avoid planting weeping willows in dry soil. Moisture is essential for them to flourish. Weeping willows can tolerate summer heat, so long as there is sufficient water available to them.

Damaging Agents and Pests

Weeping willow is susceptible to a wide range of diseases and insects. It is often affected by bacterial blight, black canker, crown gall, leaf spot, root rot, rust, willow anthracnose, willow blight, and willow scab. The tree can be infested by aphids, borers, lacebugs, gypsy moth, and scale. It is also subject to feeding by deer, elk, and rabbits.

Allergenic Potential

Weeping willow has a moderate to severe allergenic potential.

Cultivation

Weeping willow is a popular plant. Various cultivars are available for purchase in garden centers and nurseries. Some of the most frequently selected varieties include ‘Babylon’, ‘Crispa’, ‘Elegantissima’ ‘Pendula’, ‘Pendulina’, ‘Pentachdra’, ‘Sepulcralis’, ‘Tortuousa’, ‘and ‘Tristis’.

Uses

  • Weeping willow is a popular ornamental tree across its entire distribution.
  • It is used for wood production in China.
  • It serves as an important barrier plant in the oases of the Gobi Desert, shielding the nearby agricultural lands from the harsh desert winds.
  • In Norway and Europe, the bark is used to craft flutes, whistles, and other musical instruments.
  • The bark can also be used to make fish traps, or poultices.
  • Dye can be extracted from the bark and used to tan leathers.
  • Weeping willow branches were used by indigenous peoples in North America to create arrow shafts, dolls, dream-catchers, and paint-brushes.
  • The leaves and bark of weeping willow are astringents, with anti-rhuematic qualities. A tonic can be made from the leaves, and used to provide temporary relief from pain caused by abscesses, arthritis, headaches, toothaches, inflammation, and fevers.
  • The inner bark can be dried, ground into a powder, and used as an ingredient in flour to make bread. However, It has a bitter flavor, and is not too palatable.
  • The young shoots and flower buds can be cooked and consumed, but are also bitter.
  • Due to the flexibility of the stems, weeping willow branches are sometimes used to weave baskets.
  • Edward Stone, a British minister, conducted experiments on willow bark and leaves in 1763, deducing that they contained salicyclic acid, which he suspected could be used to treat a multitude of illnesses. Eventually, he found that the acid was too concentrated to be processed by the human body. In 1897, a chemist named Felix Hoffman developed a synthetic alternative to the acid that could be safely ingested. He named his invention aspirin, and began manufacturing it for his company, Bayer.
  • Weeping willow has been used as a symbol in many famous books and poems, including William Shakespeare’s Othello, and Hamlet, as well as in J.R.R. Tolkien’s renown fantasy novel, Lord of the Rings.
  • In Ireland, weeping willow is considered a sacred tree, associated with love and fertility.
  • Charcoal used for sketching is sometimes made from processed willow bark.
  • Weeping willow plays host to three vibrantly colored butterflies: Mourning Cloak, Red-spotted Purple butterfly, and Viceroy.

 

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