How to Replant (Dead) Willows: Lazarus Trees

A little lore, coupled with science, has added to our homestead and our appreciation for nature.

When Sarah and I picked the house we wanted to buy, it was partly due to the beautiful corkscrew willow by the front deck. Charmed by its twisting branches and lovely curling leaves, it wasn’t long before Sarah decorated the tree with bird feeders, bells and other items. It, as much as anything else, represented home.

But like many beautiful things, Salix matsudana ‘Tortusa’ can be fragile. And to our grief, one rainy winter morning we found it collapsed.

Eventually, still heartbroken, I got out the chainsaw and turned our once lovely willow into logs for our firepit. But Sarah asked me to save the biggest part of a trunk. She was building an add-on to our chicken coop and wanted to use it as a pillar to hold up a netting roof. Not long after, she hauled it over to the coop and stuck the dead trunk in the ground. We felt glad that the beautiful tree, even dead, would still serve some purpose.

Next season, the trunk, as dead as I’d ever seen a tree, began to send out new branches and leaves. This is what it looks like a few years later:

It’s shocking how prolific and fast-growing willows are. Turns out that their bark contains a large quantity of the plant growth hormone auxin, making them a true Lazarus tree. In fact, willow water, a tea full of auxin, brewed out of small willow branches and twigs, is still used today to help root cuttings of all kinds.

After an ice-storm last winter, son-of-corkscrew willow suffered some damage, including a large branch bent to the ground. We got the idea that maybe we could use it to grow a replacement by the deck. Would it work a second time? I sawed off the branch, we dug a hole and planted it in the ground. For a couple of weeks it rocked in the wind and rain, a dead branch if there ever was one.

But just a few days ago, we noticed fresh shoots, green as life, emerging from the dead wood. The large cutting is rooting and coming back to life. If we’re lucky, the grandchild of the original corkscrew willow will flourish, once again giving shade and beauty to our deck and a place to feed the many bird species that flock around our homestead.

Learning about the capacity for willows to grow and also to aid other plants to root, we’ve taken cuttings from the corkscrew willow and the two American willows in our front yard and started a little tree farm. They are flourishing and we hope to sell some of the saplings. We’ve also made willow water and used it to start a forsythia bush from a wild cutting. A little lore, coupled with science, has added to our homestead and our appreciation for nature.

If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy How I built a DIY wood shed made from recycled pallets.

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