By Sage Friedman
When I first came across the phrase livestake, it sounded more like the name of a health insurance agency than a restoration tool. It wasn’t something I’d used, or even heard of. I never would have expected them to be one of the quickest, cheapest, and most effective riparian restoration methods in the toolbox.
Livestaking, or live pole planting, is a method to efficiently plant trees in riparian buffers and wetlands. To make a livestake, a tree branch is cut into a straight pole, approximately 3 feet in length. The pole is then pounded into the soil so that at least half of it is underground. These poles will push out a root system, new leaves, and given time, an entire new tree will grow from that original branch.
This process doesn’t work with every tree or shrub. The most effective species to use for livestakes are those that grow next to bodies of water. These plants have adapted to sprout from branches that break off, letting them establish elsewhere in the waterbody. In the environment, this can be caused by wind and water erosion, as well as sediment deposition. Beavers can also help.When a beaver creates a dam, sticks will inevitably come loose and wash downstream. Some of these will establish and grow new trees. This lessens the impact that beavers have on these species.
Most commonly, livestakes are cut from willow (Salix sp.), cottonwood (Populus balsamifera), and dogwood (Cornus sericea). All three of these will readily sprout when planted as a livestake—often, even more robustly than when planted as a traditional sapling in a pot. Livestakes have considerably more caloric energy stored than a sapling does. Coupled with thicker bark, a livestake is more tolerant of poor conditions and drying out than a sapling is. There is a caveat to that, however. Because they have no roots when first planted, livestakes must be planted in wetlands or riparian areas where they can absorb enough water in their first year.
Livestakes provide a variety of ecological functions. They can serve as a line of defense against bank erosion. Because they develop a root system quickly, livestakes can hold soil together in places that lack large trees. Livestakes also provide shade, which is vital for keeping water temperaturescool in salmon-bearing streams. Livestakes also have many wildlife benefits. They are a great fast-growing food source, and we often struggle to stop elk from eating them.
These benefits make livestakes a great option for riparian plantings, both in restoration and home gardening. And the best part: they’re free! That is, if you have willows or cottonwoods on your property and want to thin them by cutting and planting some livestakes. If not, we always have pacific willow livestakes available for purchase at our native plant sale.