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Unexpected results sprout from P.E.I. willow tree project

‘The benefits of these willow plants have really exceeded what we had originally intended to do’

Across from a potato field in Central Bedeque, P.E.I., sits more than 700 perfectly placed willow trees. And while the plants are easy on the eyes, they also serve a much larger purpose.

The trees are part of a project that began on the Island around five years ago. Its purpose was to study how the plants could help the ecosystem.

“Willows are particularly effective as natural straws,” said Emily Murphy, a plant biologist and agri-forestry consultant with the East Prince Agri-Environment Association.

“It’s acting as a buffer, in order to make sure that there’s no [excess nutrients] leaching into the groundwater or the adjacent surface waters.”

According to Murphy, not only are willows thriving in that field, but they have also proven to be shockingly successful at storing carbon dioxide emissions.

She said one hectare of buffers on the island can capture up to 29 tonnes of CO2 annually, which is the annual emissions equivalent for six passenger vehicles.

Johanna Kelly with the Kensington North Watersheds Association said she was also surprised by the results.

“The benefits of these willow plants have really exceeded what we had originally intended to do,” she said.

On top of cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions and helping keep the surrounding waters clean, Kelly said the plants “are flowering and covered in pollen so that’s creating biodiversity.”

The research was done in partnership with Island farms, the Kensington North Watersheds Association, the Souris & Area Branch of the P.E.I. Wildlife Federation, Greentree Agroforestry Solutions and Dalhousie University.

Currently, Murphy said there are 11 willow buffers planted in three Prince Edward Island watersheds. That adds up to approximately 13,000 trees or one hectare.

“These willows are only going to grow larger,” she said.

“Their root systems are only going to get bigger. Their stems are going to get taller and so they’re going to have an even higher capacity to sequester more carbon.”

Moving forward, Murphy said more investigation is needed.

“East Prince is looking at doing some research into what’s happening below ground because that’s where most of the carbon storage, nutrient sequestration and greenhouse gas mitigation is happening,” she said.

“We’d certainly like to see more growers planting willows in the province.”

Back in Central Bedeque, farmer Rob Green said he plans to add two more plots of willow trees on his farm and hopes to have those planted by this summer.

“To me, it’s a good news story that I’m hopefully helping out the stream or the river down below this willow tree project to be a better stream,” he said.

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