Energetic willow tree studies at Harpenden’s Rothamsted Research

Dr Angela Karp of Rothamsted Research in Harpenden with just some of the willow trees grown at the c

Dr Angela Karp of Rothamsted Research in Harpenden with just some of the willow trees grown at the centre - Credit: Debbie White/Archant

Famous for not yielding to strong gusts of wind, willow trees are being studied in Harpenden for another strength – as a potential “energy crop” which could be harvested as a substitute for fossil fuels.

Angela Karp, scientific director of the Cropping Carbon Institute strategic programme at Rothamsted Research, West Common, has been studying the plant’s characteristics.

She is responsible for the UK willow cultivating programme, and has received awards in recognition of her studies into the plant.

Dr Karp described the plant as being, “part of the UK’s cultural history.”

Willows were used extensively during the First World War – as baskets.

Food, medical supplies and tens of thousands of artillery shells were transported to the front line in willow baskets, by mules.

Dr Karp said the plant was ideal to study as it grew quickly and required very few fertilisers, “because they recycle nutrients”.

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There is no annual cultivation cycle and as the crops are fast growing, they boast the potential to produce large yields with low pesticide requirements.

Dr Karp said: “At Rothamsted, we have a unique collection of over 1,700 species and hybrids of willows, which we started in the 1920s.”

She added: “We are providing the underpinning research to improve willow as a biomass crop.”

Researchers in Harpenden and their counterparts from partner organisations are looking at the sustainable production of biomass from energy crops, the willow, for heat and power – bioenergy – and for liquid transport fuels, biofuels.

There is a drive to reduce dependency on fossil fuels, to help alleviate global climate change and provide sustainable sources of energy for the future.

Dr Karp said: “We have already released high-yield willows for the heating and power industries. With our research we are looking ahead, to see how we can improve the use of the plant, by looking at its diversity.

“There is massive interest in the research, particularly in its use for biofuels.”

The Herts Advertiser will be back at Rothamsted Research when work is completed on the new innovation hub this time next year.