Gardening

Weeping Willow in Serious Decline 

Question

There is a weeping willow over 100 years old on the lot we just purchased. It’s beautiful, but we noticed a big hole in its trunk. Also, the trunk is hollow over quite a distance and the rest seems full of rotting wood. Plus, it’s near our house. Is there any danger that it will fall on our home? How do we save it? We’d like to keep it, especially since our municipality no longer allows the planting of willows. 

Lisa, 
Neuville. Québec 

Tree with hollow trunk
Tree with hollow trunk. Photo: Jana Illnerová, www.publicdomainpictures.net.

Answer

I know I’m going to anger some people by saying this, you really should consider having it removed. There are reasons why municipalities have largely banned large willows on their territory and it’s mostly to protect its citizens and their property. I know it seems terrible to lose a tree that old*, but if there’s the slightest danger of the willow falling on your house—or on one of your children, or a neighbor’s child. Well, that’s just not a risk anyone should take. 

*I doubt very much that your willow is of as venerable an age as you think, by the way. Humans tend to add years to the age of trees. The weeping willow (Salix?×?sepucralis ‘Chrysocoma’ or similar) grows rapidly, often reaching full height in about ten years or so, but, like many fast-growing trees, doesn’t live very long. Maybe about 30 years on average. A 50-year-old weeping willow would be quite an ancient specimen. Yours is probably dying, which is what nature intended. 

Broken branch on a weeping willow
Remember that willows are very fragile, brittle trees. Photo: Herzi Pinki, Wikimedia Commons.

Also, remember that willows are very fragile, brittle trees. They constantly lose twigs and sometimes larger branches during wind, snow and ice storms. Also, while most trees can survive just fine with a hollow trunk (read Hollow Tree? No Need to Panic!), willows are a bit of any exception to the rule. Because of the naturally weak structure of the trees in the genus Salix, a decaying willow is more vulnerable to damage than most. 

Get Expert Advice on Your Willow

However, since you care a lot about this tree, you might still want to have it examined by a certified arborist. (I insist on the word “certified”: there are still many people who improvise themselves as tree surgeons or arborists without having the necessary qualifications.) It’s often possible to “save” even a tree with severe decay. 

Still, I doubt very much that anything can be done for your weeping willow, as this species is not one given to recovering from its wounds. It’s a pioneer tree: one that arrives early in the maturation of a forest, creating a shadier environment for slow-growing, long-lived trees that will follow, then quickly dies out, leaving the forest to the latter. 

Salue pleureur dans un jardin en fleur à proximité d'une maison
Willow roots s are known.to cause damage to houses. Photo: Wonderlane, flickr.com.

As for your municipality’s ban on planting of willows, that’s quite common. It helps protect both city property and private property. You should check with your municipality for details. Many prohibit the planting of willows, poplars, or silver maples entirely or within 50 to 65 ft (15 to 20 m) of a residence. This is because of the damage that their long roots are known to cause, but falling branches or trunks are even more of a problem when the tree is very close to a house.  

Garden writer and blogger, author of more than 60 gardening books, the laidback gardener, Larry Hodgson, lives and gardens in Quebec City, Canada. The Laidback Gardener blog offers more than 2,500 articles to passionate home gardeners, always with the goal of demystifying gardening and making it easier for even novice gardeners. If you have a gardening question, enter it in Search: the answer is probably already there!

4 comments on “Weeping Willow in Serious Decline 

  1. Randy Evans

    We have several Globe Willows in our area that are beautiful trees! Are they better than the “weeping” variety?

  2. Ann T Dubas

    Very relieved to learn about weeping willows. We have two, one looks especially bad and I always wondered why. They’re in a safe place but are probably about 40 years old, original plantings like the double row of enormous Bradford Pears and ancient, sickly apple trees. We already had a huge, pink dogwood die and are worried about our enormous ornamental cherry and other large dogwoods. Probably near the ends of their ropes too.

  3. Shaunn Munn

    Knew willows were risky, but glad to know about silver maples. When our neighborhood was built in the 1980’s, it was dotted with silver maples and white pines.

    The maple has been a bane from the word go, losing branches and raining sap over our cars.

    Sadly, it’s on the property line and the neighbors fuss whenever we prune an iffy branch, even on our side.

    Don’t plant silver maples!

  4. Excellent info to know. I wanted to plant 2 new trees and willows and maples (who knew there were more varieties than red maples and “regular” maples?) were on my preferred list and it would never have occurred to me to check with our municipality. But then maybe nurseries wouldn’t carry those varieties so I would have been saved from myself? Well, but now I know, thanks to you.

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