Salix matsudana aka Chinese willow on the riverside.

Willow is a super fun species. Originating from China, not the Middle East as the Latin name implies, Salix babylonica aka Weeping willow is a common sight in our North American landscape. There are several humongous old willow reaching out over the river side next to my home. It’s a nostalgic tree with a definitive style for many. They create such a beautiful image, harnessing both a strong masculinity and a feminine elegance. I’m sure many folks can think of one or more willow trees that became a significant memory in their lives.

One of many near my home, roots swimming in fresh moving river water.

There is a lot I can talk about when it comes to willows. It’s challenging to organize my thoughts so let’s start by talking about some of the blatant differences from other species. With many very distinct nuances salix presents us with special challenges and advantages fairly unique to this species.

For starters willows can make their own rooting hormones. You may have heard of “willow water”. Soaking cut willow branches in water will cause certain acids and hormones to release and will promote root growth on themselves and other species! Some folks water freshly repotted trees with willow water to help speed recovery. Others use it to root cuttings of all kinds. Another benefit is you can literally cut a fairly large branch off a tree, stick it in water, it will secrete hormones in the water and grow roots. Now, building a nice Bonsai from that cutting is a whole other blog post.

Willows are extremely agressive growers. This comes with pros and cons. On the negative side we see a lot of seemingly random branch dieback and flagging. If the agressive growth is not balanced they may let branches die off. Something to stay on top of. When pruning there will always be a larger amount die back than with most other species. This is something to consider when pruning to balance energy and build subsequent branching. Due to their agressive root growth, they can require two repottings per season, the roots grow extremely fast. Because they are moving so much water they need access to it all the time during the growing season, all of my willows sit in a tray containing a few inches of water. Within weeks after repotting, there will be roots growing out the bottom of the pot into the water. For this reason we must also avoid very shallow pots. Another downside with moving sugars and starches so fast are the pests. It’s a constant battle to keep insects from eating these trees, especially caterpillars. I’ve not had any major damage but I must stay vigilant. The caterpillars have even started trying to hide from me in the wire scars.

All that said , I present to you a twin trunk willow with a weeping design that my teacher started and is now in my collection. This picture was taken after a spring repot and wiring.

Here it is next to one of my teacher’s big mama willows. Zoom in on that trunk !

About a month into the growing season, I was forced to remove the wire. They grow so fast it was biting in hard. I took it all off and rewired a couple branches but mainly the trunks to keep them from falling over. Low and behold not 3 weeks later the wire bit in hard again. I ask myself, how many times am I to wire this tree in one season?! Being young, healthy, in a good soil mix, pampered with fertilizer and algae, this thing is going to be vigorous and agressive!

Above you can see the scars from the first wiring as well as the wire from the second application already biting into the trunk.

I began removing the wire again. Luckily this time the trunks set and held their position. I think I can stop wiring them. The branches however, have not all set. Some have set and maintained nice movement created by wiring. Many other younger branches and shoots are trying to grow upwards, spoiling the weeping design. I decided I wouldn’t wire as much anymore and I would tie some weights to the ends of branches. Let’s keep this simple right?

Some deep scaring that will clear up quickly at the rate these grow. Also prime hiding spot for caterpillars! Watch out!

After removing the wire from the trunk and looking at the tree, I wanted to get the silhouette back. I had intended on some fishing sinkers as weights. What a great excuse to indulge my fishing hobby and go to the tackle shop. Call it ingenuity, call it impatience or maybe both, instead, I decided to create some make shift weights using the aluminum wire that I had just removed. I cut several lengths a few inches long and with my pliers, roughly twisted two coils into each piece. I then threaded the ends of the branch inside of the two coils and carefully pinched the wire closed. I pinched part of the middle on the main loop as well as the loose ends. This allowed for it to stay on the branch but without putting any direct pressure on the branch stem itself, allowing free movement.

In time we shall see if this impromptu method proves to be worthwhile. Here are my bullet point thoughts on the technique thus far:

Pros

  • Very quick and efficient to make and apply to many branches.
  • Insignificant wire bite to monitor. No unwiring, no rewiring, no scars.
  • The aesthetic is not very invasive and possibly preferable compared to weights on string that extend the visual impression of a branch.
  • Weight can be adjusted easily by changing wire gauges, adding more twists in the piece or simply placing additional pieces on the same branch.
  • Seemingly an effective way to weigh down young branches before and as they lignify.
  • In the wind they sometimes hit benches or each other and make a nice jingle noise. Silly but fun. Hah.

Cons

  • Will have to watch the branch tips to ensure wire weights are removed before the branch tips become too thick and are compressed by the wire. In a bad case I can anticipate some agressive bulging and die back or worse branch loss. I anticipate much slower than normal wire bite.
  • Can not put movement into branches like with standard wiring. The branches will be drawn down in a natural weeping design therefore limited.

Ultimately, I was quickly able to get the tree back into a weeping design with the wire coils. Moving forwards, I will probably bounce between wiring in some movement and using wire weights on a case by case basis to avoid excessive need for wiring maintenance on this tree.

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