Eugene is an avid gardener and has been passionate about growing things for over 40 years. Twitter @EugenesDIYDen
Wonderful World of Willow
Willow, osiers and sallow are groups of several hundred species of deciduous trees and shrubs from the genus salix. Because they are fast growing, flexible and easy to propagate, they have been used since ancient times for construction and crafts.
In this guide, you'll see just how easy it is to grow willow from cuttings.
What Is Willow Used for?
Willow grows very fast. In countries that have a mild, damp climate (e.g., Ireland, where I live), willow shoots grow about 12 feet per year.
So what is willow used for?
- Construction, scaffolding, weaving, and crafts: Bamboos are one of the fastest-growing group of plants on planet Earth and have been widely used in Asia for construction, scaffolding and weaving. Similarly in more temperate climates, willow has been used for crafts and construction since ancient times. Because willow rods are so flexible, they are ideal for basketry (known as "wickerwork") and construction of wattle fences and walls, in thatching of roofs, and cricket bats.
- Medicine: The bark of willow trees has been used for millennia for medicinal purposes. It contains salicin, a compound which is metabolized to salicylic acid in the body. This acts as an anti-inflammatory and painkiller, and salicylic acid is the same compound produced when aspirin is broken down in the body.
- Energy crop: Willow grows fast, so it is an excellent energy or biomass crop. It is carbon neutral and unlike the burning of fossil fuels, doesn't produce new carbon dioxide (only what it fixed from the atmosphere), which contributes to the greenhouse effect. Willow is harvested, chipped and can be used in home heating systems or for generating electricity in thermal power stations.
- Living fences and structures: Willow can be used to make a "living fence" and structures in the garden (e.g., huts). A screen made from willow will sprout in the summer, and the leaves on these screens will provide partial shade and privacy while allowing sunlight to penetrate.
How to Grow Cuttings of Willow
- You can buy cuttings in a store, online or get them from a friend. Alternatively, in spring, harvest shoots from a mature willow tree. Every time a tree is pruned, it will become more vigorous and start to produce more and more shoots every year.
- Willow propagates readily and is eager to grow. So shoots will easily produce roots in a bucket of water. Since roots require oxygen, my theory is that it's a good idea to change the water regularly before it becomes stagnant, otherwise the roots could drown and die back. I changed the water every week, but maybe it isn't necessary to do this (experiment required!).
- Once roots become a couple of inches long, dig V-profile slots in the ground, about 10 inches deep. Insert the cuttings into the slots, spacing them about 1 1/2 feet apart and backfill with sand, taking care not to damage the delicate roots. Firm the sand around the cuttings (if you have several cuttings, you can dig a V-shaped trench). Water regularly to prevent dry out, especially in dry weather.
- Transplant the new saplings to their final location in autumn when they have dropped their leaves.
- An alternative way of propagating is to take cuttings and plant them between November and early April. The soil needs to be reasonably soft and cultivated for this method to work. Push a metal rod, roughly the diameter of the cutting into the soil to a depth of about 10 inches to make a hole. Next push the cuttings down into the ground, leaving at least 3 buds above the surface.
The advantage of rooting in water is that you can be sure that the cutting has developed roots before planting. Sometimes a cutting will fail to root, and if a row of cuttings has been planted as a screen, it will be too late in the season to replace the dead rods, resulting in gaps in your "fence."
In both cases, if the intention is to use the cuttings as a source of further cuttings in following years, the new saplings can be cut back to about a foot above ground level in the following spring (i.e., a year since they were harvested). The saplings will then start to produce their own shoots which can be harvested the following year.
Growing Willow: Soil and Location
Willow thrives in open, sunny conditions and loves damp but well-drained soil. The roots will seek out water, so trees should be kept well away from drains and septic tanks. Like all trees, willow should be kept at a distance from buildings, walls and other structures since roots can cause subsidence as they absorb moisture from the ground. If the plants are only used to produce willow rods however, this isn't as serious an issue. In the first few years after planting, grass and weeds should be removed from the base of plants by hoeing or mulching. Cuttings can be spaced about 1 1/2 feet apart.
What About Weeping Willow?
Weeping willow is a cross-bred ornamental willow often seen in parks and growing close to water. You can grow these from cuttings using the techniques described above.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: I planted three rooted weeping willow cuttings earlier this year, and they have already produced a main frond measuring 3- feet long which is very soft and delicate, do I tie this to a stake to encourage it to become the main trunk of the eventual tree?
Answer: I'm not sure; I've only grown common willow and just allowed it to grow naturally so that side shoots branch out from the main shoot. It's probably a good idea to keep the shoot upright. Otherwise, the growth may end up lopsided. Keep it upright for this year and see what happens next year. Side shoots will then grow, and the main shoot will be thicker and start to become self-supporting. Make sure any ties you use don't cut into the delicate stems. A good tip is to thread ties through short sections of waste garden hose or similar to make them wider and prevent them cutting or abrading stems.
Question: We planted willow with the intention of using it for our woodburner. How should we be cutting it back to get the main stem and branches to thicken up please?
Answer: If you cut any side shoots back, the main stem will thicken every year. When I started cutting back my tree, it was a few inches in diameter. Now it's almost 1 foot diameter. Also I've found that shoots will grow 12 feet in a year (depending on your climate) if cut back every year. However if left for 2 years, they don't grow an additional 12 feet to 24 feet in total. Shoot thickness will increase, however I'm not sure whether the volume doubles. I would think that skipping the year of pruning slows down growth.
© 2015 Eugene Brennan
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on April 30, 2020:
Crispy leaves sounds as if they didn't make good enough contact with the sides and bottom of the holes and couldn't absorb water fast enough to support the leaves. Fall is the best time really for planting hardwood cuttings. If it's not too much effort I'd try some more whips and shove them down close to the original ones. They might sprout again. Is the ground soft enough to push them into without using the rebar? Alternatively you could try rooting them in a bucket of water. The problem though would be that when you push them down into the holes, you could end up shearing off the delicate roots.
Asimplenest on April 30, 2020:
Last week (late April in zone 6b) I cut a bunch of 2 and 3 year old whips from some wild willows growing by a stream near me. I have pretty clay type soil so i wetted it down and pounded some guide holes with rebar then stuck in the branches to make a living dome for my kids. I was so excited. But now a week later I can see the leaves have gone crispy. They had only just started leafing before i cut them. Do the crispy leaves mean they died? I have kept them very wet, since i read they cannot be watered too much. I don’t know much about willow, but my guess is i should have done this a month ago. That my cuttings were either not clean enough cuts, or maybe dried a bit at some point before put in the ground. (They sat in the garage overnight before i stuck them in water cause they were originally to make a wattle fence before i stumbled on the idea online that night) Anyway....i dont know if i should get more cuttings and try again, or just see if they rejuvenate? What would you suggest?
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on December 17, 2019:
Cut stems normally produce shoots even out of water until the moisture in the stem gets used up or is replenished if the stems are standing in water.
Are you sure there are leaf nodes submerged under the water? (the point where secondary branches/stalks attached to the side of the stem) Usually roots sprout from these points. Also if it's winter where you're located, growth will be dormant.
Vanessa on December 17, 2019:
I've put willow cuttings in water for 5 weeks. I have shoots but no roots. Help please.
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on June 29, 2019:
Yes you can Kelly, but all large plants and especially a vigorous plant like willow will run out of steam in a container unless the container is large. Try and use something no smaller than a three gallon bucket for a single cutting. Use a mix of good quality compost and soil. Water regularly in dry weather and feed a couple of times a week.
Kellie Morris on June 29, 2019:
Can you grow willow cuttings in containers? If so what is the best way ?
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on May 22, 2018:
Usually roots run outwards somewhat further than the crown of a tree.
In newer homes, gas, sewerage, waste water and water mains pipes usually run straight out of a building and out to the street (or they may come out the back or side of the building and then outwards). In older houses, especially terraces, pipes may be at the backs of houses. Manholes often give an idea of the route of pipes.
Amanda on May 22, 2018:
I keep reading that willow roots can cause problems with walls, buildings and drains, so should not be planted too close to those things. However, nobody specifies what 'close' is. Also, how do you know if there are pipes running below the willows in your garden?
peachy from Home Sweet Home on June 09, 2015:
thanks for the tips, i will try that
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on June 01, 2015:
Thanks MG, glad you liked it and thanks for the comments!
MG Seltzer from South Portland, Maine on June 01, 2015:
Really nice aticle and great photos too. I'm really interested in trying this and will bookmark this Hub. Thank you.
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on May 15, 2015:
Thanks for the comments!
Willow is vigorous so the roots would probably eventually become pot bound and growth would slow down as nutrients get used up. A liquid fertilizer would help during the growing season. You could always try transplanting to a larger container.....
RTalloni on May 15, 2015:
Enjoyed this very much. Wondering about a small willow stand in a container and if it would thrive for small spaces.
Denise McGill from Fresno CA on February 15, 2015:
I've woven baskets before using willow and raffia. It is quite fun but messy. You have to soak the willow so it is very soft and often you want to scrap off the outer bark too so just the inner white wood is used.
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on February 14, 2015:
You're welcome and thanks for the comments! One of the things I would love to try (if I ever get around to it!) is basket weaving, and it would be nice to try building a small living willow hut in the garden also.
Denise McGill from Fresno CA on February 14, 2015:
This is fascinating and ecologically sound. Love it. Thanks