March of the Clones

At Rutland Marsh in Humboldt County, I waded into a wide-open wetland vista with a big sky and scattered farmsteads on the horizon. And as I wandered in, I noted a line of small willow sprouts, and went for a closer look.


The open, shallow water wetland is dominated with herbaceous plants such as Cattail (as expected) and an impressive thicket of Horsetail (an unexpectedly large patch). But here I found a large Willow (Salix) tree, trunks split down to the ground and offering up numerous sprouts from its sprawling, decaying trunk. I was looking at a Willow cloning operation!


This is a type of vegetative reproduction, and is quite common in willows. Stems readily sprout from the trunk, even if it has fallen over. Essentially the plant is activating special growth tissues (i.e., buds) located along the trunk, “turning them on” so to speak. Most trees have plenty of such options, with buds located on the trunk or shallow roots, allowing for regrowth after damage. Imagine a stump resprouting after the trunk and crown are cut down or damaged by fire.


More interesting is the propensity of willows to propagate from cuttings. A little snippet, removed from the rest of the tree, readily grows wherever it finds itself. This was delightfully illustrated by cuttings my wife made a couple years back, from a willow in our yard at home. The pretty, vibrant green twigs looked lovely sitting in a in a vase with water. Soon enough however, those twigs sprouted roots. In fact a willow is ridiculously easy to propagate in this way: you can literally tear off a brittle side-branch from a trunk, and drop it on moist ground, and you have planted a tree. It’s easy to imagine this as an effective reproductive strategy for a tree growing near water, spreading itself pretty much everywhere. Perhaps in the future those clones at Rutland will each grow into full-sized willow trees? I suppose that depends on future hydrology and management. Fire for example would not be a friend to our Willow.

Todd from the County Conservation Board told me a little more about the site. The property consists of 67 acres and was former farmland (including several agricultural drain tiles on site, unsurprisingly). Several cooperating groups provided funding to purchase and prepare the site, including Habitat Stamp Grant program, Ducks Unlimited, and Pheasants Forever. Interestingly, the state DNR has set up a well nest on the site; these wells are used to monitor water quality in the Mississippian aquifer. Once again, wetlands at your service: waterfowl habitat/hunting, wellhead protection and water quality…and a Willow nursery. Come out sometime and we’ll add “wetland wandering” to the list.

Author: Paul Weihe

Associate Professor of Biology at Central College, traditional author (Textbook of Limnology, Cole & Weihe, 5th ed.; Waveland Press), and now...blogger!

3 thoughts on “March of the Clones”

  1. Ah, the wonders of willows and the willow dilemma. Willows can take over. There is online information on how to control willows on Upper Midwest wetlands. Spreading willows can reduce the value of wetland areas for many species of plants and animals.

    And yet willows are beautiful native plants that benefit many other kinds of wildlife and are vital to some species. The truth is that we need thousands more wetlands in Iowa for many reasons, including water quality, as pointed out in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. And if we had many more wetlands, we could have more diverse wetland management, with willows being dominant in some wetlands and kept under control in others. We wouldn’t have to have so much concern about whether all wetland species in Iowa are getting what they need on the limited wetland acres that we currently have.


    1. I’ve wondered why Willows should be so successful, to the point of excess. It would seem that browsers (especially deer) would keep them in check…although, Willows are very bitter. Whatever the reason, no one can doubt their success…


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