GIMLI -- The lowly willow bush grows like a weed and has been of little use to people except as willow switches to keep children on the virtuous path.
But conservation districts across Manitoba are having great results planting willow bushes for erosion control on our lakes and rivers.
Conservationists love the willow's aggressive root system. The roots act like rebar, holding soil in place so it doesn't fall into water systems.
"Willows are the perfect species for this environment. They're easy to harvest, easy to plant, and their rooting mass is so large," said Armand Belanger, manager of the East Interlake Conservation District, based out of Gimli.
Some conservationists would like to use willow switches on landowners who seed lawns down to the water's edge. "It's the biggie" in human practises that contribute to shore erosion, said Belanger. The shallow root system of lawn grasses doesn't hold down soils at all. By comparison, native grasses can have roots two to three feet deep.
The ditch-dweller willow surpasses that. What you see above ground is just the tip of the verdure. Willows have been known to have roots 20 feet long. In residential areas, their roots can clog drains and sewer systems. Along waterways, it just holds soil in place like netting.
The EICD is overseeing willow demonstration stands on Lake Winnipeg in Hnausa Provincial Park, and on the Icelandic River in Riverton. Other conservation districts have willow demonstration sites on the Pembina River near Killarney, the Little Saskatchewan River at the Minnedosa golf course, Rat River, St. Malo Lake, and on Joubert Creek near St. Pierre-Jolys.
The demonstration plot at Hnausa shows how effective willows can be. A stretch in Hnausa park has lost about six metres of shoreline, versus the demonstration site right beside it where willows were planted just six years ago. The EICD, Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation combined on the project.
However, some rock was used at the water's edge so wave action couldn't undercut the bank. It's still debatable whether riprap is needed, said Belanger. Some rock may be required where the shoreline has a bit of cliff.
Getting started is a snap. Willows fill the ditches along Manitoba roads. First, identify the wild willows you want to transplant when they are in leaf. In fall, after about two frosts, perform the transplant. You don't have to pull out the root. Just cut the willow midway or lower. Soak the ends in water for two days. Then transplant the willow two to three feet deep. One way to make a pre-hole is by hammering rebar into the ground. They take two to three years to leaf and establish a root system.
"It's a little give-back to the environment," Belanger said.
The down side is shoreline shrubbery blocks the view. However, willows can be cut down knee-high once they are established, since all you really want is their roots.
It's a welcome substitute for blanketing a shore with rocks. "Nobody wants a stone quarry in their backyard," said Chris Randall, who is doing his Masters thesis on willows for erosion control and is working with Manitoba CDs.
The biggest problem with the demonstration plots is a certain waffle-tailed symbol of Canada.
"We're finding beavers are a big problem. They love willows. They think we're putting out a buffet for them," said Randall.
The solution is putting wire mesh around early stands to keep off the furry over-biters until the willow takes root. Then beavers can trim off the willow tops to their heart's content.
Randall said willow has been used for erosion control on European waterways dating back several thousand years. It is making a comeback due to growing environmental awareness.
For more information, contact the nearest conservation district (Winnipeg doesn't have one). There are 18 CD offices in the province. They are listed at mcda.ca .