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The Pollard Willow

How can I develop a sympoietic relationship with a pollard willow?

Through five careful interactions with the willow, I sought to explore the entangled relationship between humans and trees. I pollarded a pollard willow, propagated it by planting its branches, constructed a small hut from its branches, brewed willow water using the tree’s branches and made willow leaf tea. These tests explore the scope of interactions and interdependencies that may exist between a tree and a person.  I tried to use, care for and propagate the willows in a sustainable way. Healing the relationship between humans and trees by developing a new, sympoietic one.

Pollard Willow

The youngest willow stands in front of the building; with a straight, narrow trunk with long branches stretching out like arms reaching for the sky. In summer, people sit below the shade of the tree to seek shelter from the sun.

The Younger Willow, Buitenplaats, March 2023

The Pollard Willow

On the Buitenplaats Brienenoord, two pollard willows, ‘knotwilgen’ in Dutch, stand tall, each with a unique character. When the winter ended, it was time to pollard the younger of the two trees and I thought this would be a great opportunity to explore tree sympoiesis, as the pollard has a historical, complex relationship with humans. Pollarding is an ancient European pruning practice used to obtain wood for fodder or as lumber for baskets, fuel or fencing (Petit, 2003). The tree is a staple of the Dutch landscape, as it grows quickly and thrives on wet soil (Bus, 2021). Their early blossoms are an important nutrient source for insects and their trunks provide shelter for creatures such as ducks and owls (Schaaphok, 2020). When a tree is only a few years old, it gets cut at two meters above the ground (Pollarding/RHS Gardening, n.d). From the top, new branches grow that can be cut back every few years. Once a tree has been pollarded, regular pollarding becomes essential to prevent the tree’s branches from becoming too heavy and tearing off the tree or even causing it to collapse (Woodie, 2019). However, when tended to, pollarded trees can grow very old (Read, 2016). Pollards and humans have co-evolved.


The second willow, a bit older, stands behind the building, next to a small ditch, its once proud form has slumped, its hollow frame bearing the marks of years battling with fungi. Despite its misshapen appearance and the parts of its trunk missing, it stands still, a testament to its resilience.

The Older Willow, Buitenplaats, March 2023


Pollarding The Willow Tree

Pollarding should be carried out between October and March because the willow is dormant and has no leaves (Vrooland, 2021). If it were to be done during the warmer months when the tree has leaves, the tree would lose access to oxygen and sunlight, leading to an inability to produce enough to survive the next winter (Vrooland, 2021). With garden shears and a small saw, I carefully trimmed all the branches and left the four largest branches at the top, to prevent the rising sap from being trapped in the trunk and poisoning and killing the tree (Puur Natuur Winter 2022, 2022).

The verb pollarding comes from the word poll, which means ‘head’ or ‘scalp’ and polling means ‘to cut the hair off’ (source). As I cut with my oversized scissors, I felt like a tree barber, trying to groom the head of a very tall client.


Pollarding, Buitenplaats, March 2023

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pollard willow pollard


Propagated Willow Branches,

Buitenplaats, March 2023

Propagating The Willow Tree

The willow is great for vegetative propagating, because when a willow branch is stuck in the soil, it will quickly grow new roots and become a new tree. Willow branches contain a high concentration of a plant hormone that stimulates root growth, Indolebutyric Acid (IBA) (Eliades, 2010). I took four of the pollarded branches and planted them in a row by the ditch next to the old willow, where they have easy access to water. Then the waiting game began. After some weeks the branches grew blossoms; after a month the nodes had small buds and leaves. They have successfully rooted in their new home.


Propagated willow branches after two months,

Buitenplaats, May 2023


New leaf growth,

Buitenplaats, May 2023

Willow Hut


Forming A Willow Hut

Willow branches are great for weaving, being long, slim and flexible. The branches I harvested were too tall and thick to use for baskets, but great to weave into a hut or a sculpture. I made a living dome structure by planting the willow branches in a circle and tying them together at the top. Then I wove more branches diagonally around the dome. When the branches grow, it will become a collaborative sympoietic structure.


Making knots with twine, Buitenplaats, April 2023

Willow Hut from inside, Buitenplaats, April 2023


Willow Hut, Buitenplaats, April 2023

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Willow water

Making willow water, Buitenplaats, May 2023

Drinking Willow Tea

The chemical SA is similar to the medicine Aspirin and was used by the Sumerians and Egyptians to relieve headaches (Desborough and Keeling, 2017). I dried the young willow leaves and then soaked them in warm water to make willow tea. The act of drinking the slightly grassy tea made me feel closer to the willow. I wonder if I drink a lot of it, will I grow my own roots too?

Willow Tea

Brewing Willow Water

If you take young, green willow branches and soak them in water, you can extract the rooting hormone IBA and the defensive hormone Salicylic Acid (SA). SA is a chemical that helps signal the plant’s defences, e.g. when the plant is under attack. When triggered, the plant can induce pathogens to fight off the threat (Eliades, 2010). When the hormones have seeped into the water, it can be used to water cuttings. I collected some branches from the old willow, put boiling water over the stems in a pot and left them for 48 hours to extract the rooting hormone. Then I poured the willow water on various young plants on the Buitenplaats. Hopefully, it will stimulate their root growth and resistance (Eliades, 2010).

Willow leaves, Buitenplaats, May 2023

Willow water, Buitenplaats, May 2023


Willow tea, Buitenplaats, May 2023


Angelo, View All Posts By. “How to Make Home Made Plant Rooting Hormone – Willow Water.” Deep Green Permaculture, 6 May 2023,,leach%20out%20into%20the%20water.


Bus, Jan. “Knotwilgen en hun plaats in de cultuurhistorie”. Natuursbeschermingswacht, juni 2021,,manden%20en%20korven%20te%20vlechten. 


Desborough, Michael J. R., and David Keeling. “The Aspirin Story - From Willow to Wonder Drug.” British Journal of Haematology, vol. 177, no. 5, Wiley-Blackwell, June 2017, pp. 674–83, doi:10.1111/bjh.14520.


Haraway, Donna J. Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. 2016.


Petit, Sandrine & Watkins, Charles. (2003). Pollarding Trees: Changing Attitudes to a Traditional Land Management Practice in Britain 1600–1900. Rural History. 14. 157-176. 10.1017/S0956793303001018.


“Pollard | Etymology, Origin and Meaning of Pollard by Etymonline.” Etymonline, 2020,,to%20the%20trunk%2C%20from%201610s.

“Pollarding / RHS Gardening”. Royal Horticultural Society,


“Puur Natuur Winter 2022”. Issuu, 14 december 2022,


Read, Helen (October 2006). "A brief review of pollards and pollarding in Europe" (PDF). Burnham Beeches National Nature Reserve.


Schaaphok, Ramaka. “De wilg dreigt te verdwijnen, maar dit is waarom hij onmisbaar is voor de Nederlandse natuur”. MAX Vandaag, april 2020,,er%20steeds%20minder%20van%20over.


Vrooland, Laura. “Vraag van de week: hoe snoei je een knotwilg en wat doe je met de takken?” RTL Nieuws, 1 oktober 2021,,de%20wilg%20echt%20in%20bloei.


Woodie, Maria. “Pruning Techniques: Coppicing and Pollarding Trees and Shrubs”. Horticulture, 9 december 2019,

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