The tree that can't help but grow
A twig from a black willow tree growing on a river bank may end up sprouting on a downstream sandbar.

From the Midwest and eastward, the black willow shows up everywhere. It grows as far north as New Brunswick and to Georgia in the south. On the sandy dunes of North Carolina's offshore islands, it's but a shrub. Travel westward, though, to the vast drainage of the Mississippi River, and the willow grows to commercial-lumber size.

In the Mississippi's rich bottomlands, the black willow attains great proportions -- sometimes 100' tall with a trunk nearly 4' in diameter. That size suits the lumbermen just fine. They saw and dry the wood for manufacturing into boxes, crates, and even wooden shutters. In days gone by, some of the black willow harvest would have gone for artificial limbs because of its light weight, yet super shock absorbancy.

Today's country craftsmen turn to freshly cut willow shoots for woven baskets and larger branches and saplings for bark-on, wicker-like furniture. The green wood, collected in cool months, retains its skin-like bark seemingly forever after harvest.

Black willow's greatest contribution to man goes mostly unsung, however. On riverbanks, the deep-rooted, pliant tree buffers raging waters that would sweep away soil. In fact, engineers favor the black willow for planting as a levee reinforcement.

The black willow doesn't need man's help to propagate. Insects pollinate its catkins (blossoms). The wind spreads them. Twigs, snapped off by water, wind, man, or animal, find a resting place in the ground. Then, despite weeks of dormancy, they'll sprout and grow. Try it.

Illustration: Jim Stevenson