Opinion | Chris Nyerges: On Willow – and the “Big Dig”

Published : Friday, November 23, 2018 | 4:40 AM

The Hahamongna Watershed Park is one of the local treasures where a vast acreage of riverbottom land grows wild north of the 210 freeway, and north of the Devil’s Gate dam. In the wild acreage where children play and equestrians ride, the most common tree is the willow. Also found are stands of mulefat, as well as the occasional cottonwood and alder tree. Historically, this land was one of the village sites of the indigenous native people – their cemetary located just to the south at the site of today’s Shelton Reservoir, at today’s Arroyo Blvd. and Coniston Street. Eventually, after the Mission era, water was taken out of the Arroyo to feed the orange and fruit plantations to the south.

After the Station fire, sediment filled in the wash behind the dam, and no sediment has been removed by the County for some 20 years. Now, beginning next week, the first phase of a controversial sediment removal project is scheduled to begin. The project is controversial because of the larger-than-necessary scale planned by the County Flood Control District. Rather than pursuing a smaller footprint, and steadily removing soil with the least impact to the wild life, the plan is to remove 850 truckloads of sediment a day for the duration of the more or less four year project. I had to laugh when I was at a public meeting and someone read the County’s description of how 850 trucks traveling in and throughout the southern edge of Hahamongna would be done with no disruption to the local traffic (not to mention the noise, the dust, the fumes, the scaring away of wildlife). More on that later – go to the Arroyo Seco Foundation’s website to learn more of this issue, arroyoseco.org.

One concern, of many, about this project is that the trees will simply and unceremoniously be chopped down and hauled away to the dump. Mostly willow, the wood is valuable to crafters, basket-makers, bowmakers, and herbal medicine crafters. Shouldn’t such individuals be invited in to the designated area to remove wood for their higher use than a mere dumping? Shouldn’t the County be thinking in terms of the highest use of resources? At the very least, we’re speaking of tons of firewood and woodchips,

According to the man who followed in the footsteps of Charles Lummis, “The County Flood Control District’s sediment and habitat removal program is going to be devastating to Hahamongna, the most precious environmental zone in our region,” said Arroyo Seco Foundation Managing Director Tim Brick.

Let’s take a look at just one of the major resources of the Hahamongna basin, the willow tree.


Willow plants are somewhat diverse in appearance. Some are small and bushy, and others are tall trees. Their leaves are nearly all thin and lance-shaped, and the plant is always found along streams. In Hahamongna, you can find at least five species of willow, according to surveys done for the City of Pasadena.

You might not know offhand how to identify a willow, but I can assure you that you have walked by one any time you hiked in Hahamongna.
Willow is one of the best sources of craft material. Whenever I collect willow, I go into the thickest patches and I carefully cut only those branches I need with a sharp ratchet cutter. I make clean cuts so that the plant doesn’t get diseases, and recovers strongly.

Straight pieces of willow branches are great to use for primitive bow and drill for fire-making. Dried willow makes the best drill for fire-making. It is also an ideal wood to use for the baseplate in fire-making — the flat piece of wood onto which the drill is spun.

Willows make interesting looking, lightweight walking sticks, and I have made many of these. Willow is a soft wood, so the walking sticks can be easily carved with either faces or your name or anything that your abilities allow.

Long straight willow stems are perhaps the single most useful plant in basket weaving. Willow is one of the most traditional materials used in baskets because it is light, easily worked, and it becomes flexible when soaked in water for about five minutes.

Because of willow’s flexibility and common availability, the long thin branches were used in the old days to make the traditional half-dome shelters in which the native people resided. These were perhaps 15 feet in diameter, all lashed with suitable cordage, and then thickly covered-over with layers of cattail leaves, another common plant which is found in the Arroyo Seco.

Long dried willow stems have been used as traditional pipes, and the shredded bark has been traditionally used in many of the smoking mixes.

But perhaps willow’s most important attribute is its medicinal properties. Every now and then during one of my classes, someone will tell me that they have a headache. I peel off two slivers of bark from that ubiquitous plant of the streams, willow, and hand it to them.

“Take two pieces of bark and call me in the morning,” I’ll tell them. Most people laugh when I say this, but some people don’t get it because they aren’t familiar with willow or its history. The inner bark ofwillow contains salicin and is the original aspirin. The bark of the younger shoots is strongest, and it is fairly easy to harvest. When steeped in water, willow tea is good for headaches, fevers, and even hay fever. Due to its strong antiseptic properties, the tea can also be used as a good mouthwash, or used externally on wounds. A willow wash is said to work wonders on rheumatism sufferers.

Herbal enthusiasts should flock to the Hahamongna basin to recover as much bark as possible from the willow trees that will be cut down. Perhaps that will assist them in the headaches that will be caused by the Big Dig.

[Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books.  A link to his blogs can be found at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.  He can also be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041]

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