Last week my friend Craig asked me why there seems to be so few weeping willow trees in our area. I had not noticed before, but there do seem to be far fewer of them here than there were in southwest Virginia where I grew up.
While there are over 100 species of native willows (most of which are shrubs), weeping willows originated in China. Their naturalized North American range is from eastern Canada south to Georgia and west to Missouri, with a preference for cooler areas.
My father was especially fond of weeping willows and I remember him declaring that the front yard of my childhood home, located beside a paved street at the bottom of a hill, was the perfect place to plant one. The spindly stick he put into the damp ground quickly rooted itself, benefiting from the run-off water it regularly received.
There is a black and white photograph of my brother and sister in their Easter finery standing in front of the tree when it and my brother were about six years old. The tree was not much taller than he was. The last time I drove by to see it, Daddy’s beautiful willow dominated the yard, standing at least 40 feet high. I often consider stopping to tell the current owner the tree’s story.
In my father’s memory I planted a young willow beside the pond at Cedarleaf. It was a “rescue tree” purchased from the baking heat of a discount store’s parking lot display. Two years later, it seems to be struggling and I am afraid I put it too close to the water’s edge. Willows spread along creek and river banks and beside ponds and lakes by the drifting of fallen branches carrying light brown encapsulated fruit with tiny hairy seeds. Perhaps someday there will be baby willow trees at our pond.
Willow trees help control streamside erosion, offer nectar for bees in early spring and provide food for the larvae of certain butterflies. A major component of aspirin, salicylic acid, was first derived from willow bark. The willow’s flexible branches and twigs are used in “bent willow” furniture and baskets.
Weeping willows are admired for their distinctive arching limbs and graceful drooping branches. They often appear in pictures of romantic scenes, most notably that of the famous Blue Willow China.
— Joanna Angle is a Master Tree Farmer and 2012 South Carolina Tree Farmer of the Year. Her Cedarleaf Farm in Chester County is a Certified Stewardship Forest and part of the American Tree Farm System.