Wind in the Willows of Your Garden

When you hear the word willow, you probably think of Weeping Willows, but there are more than 350 known species of willow and many hybrids of those species. Willows can lend color, shade and beauty to the landscape, and most willows grow quickly and easily. From shade trees to groundcovers, there is a willow for every garden.

Growing willows
Although they are associated with wet areas, most willows grow well in average garden conditions. Willows are generally hardy to Zone 5, some to Zone 3. They should be kept well-watered as they get established. After that most willows will do just fine with occasional watering. In wet, poorly drained areas, the willow family may provide excellent landscape choices. Willows should be planted in full sun, although they will tolerate light shade. Most willows have long, narrow leaves, although in a few species the leaves are more oval in shape. Willows are dioecious, which means the male and female flowers are on separate plants.

Most willows start easily from cuttings. If you see a nice willow whose features you admire, ask if you can take a few cuttings. They will root in sand or potting soil and some will even root in water.

Choosing varieties
The Weeping Willow is commonly sold as Babylon willow, Golden Weeping Willow or sometimes Niobe. Although the weeping willow is often associated with water in the landscape, it will grow well in average garden soil. The graceful, swaying branches lend an exotic note to the landscape. The early golden color of the twigs and young leaves are welcome in the spring. Other weeping forms of willow include Crispa, sometimes sold as Rams Horn Willow, whose narrow leaves are twisted and curly; Pendula, also known as Purple Weeping Willow, a smaller willow that must be trained to tree form with purple winter color in the stems, and Prairie Cascade, a weeping willow hybrid developed in Canada that is hardy to Zone 3.

The Black Willow, Salix nigra, is a fast-growing, large tree that can provide quick shade. Salix alba, Chermesina, is another large tree willow. It has silky, silvery leaves in the summer and bright-red branch tips in winter.

Willows make fast-growing windbreaks and shelter belts for wildlife. Salix exigua, Coyote Willow, and Salix ligulifolia, Placier Willow, are usually grown for this use. Other shrubby native species are often sold as Osier willows in wildlife- and hedgerow-conservation packages.

There are many willow species whose colorful stems lend winter interest to the garden. They can be planted as hedges or in perennial borders. Salix daphnoides, Violet Willow, has deep-purple stems in winter. Salix matsudana, Golden Curls, has bright-golden twigs in winter in an interesting zigzag pattern. Scarlet Curls has golden branches ending in bright-red twigs and is also twisted in strange patterns. Salix myrsinifolia, Black Twig Willow, has shiny deep-brown-black winter stems. Salix alba vitally, Britzensis, very popular in Europe, has flaming-orange-red winter stems. Winter color is best on young stems and pruning out older stems each year will keep the color bright.

Willows with colorful foliage all year round are commonly called Japanese Willows and include Salix integra, Hakuro Nishiki or Dappled Willow, which is three to five feet tall and has leaves that are variegated with pink and white. It makes an outstanding accent plant. Salix cinerea, Variegata, has variegated leaves of white, green and yellow. It can reach 15 feet high.

Willows can even be used as groundcovers and in alpine gardens. Salix lindleyana, Himalayan Creeping Willow, forms a mat of shining, small green leaves. Salix Lohbrenner is a tiny upright shrub used in bonsai and alpine gardens. Salix apoda has a ground-hugging habit with showy, large catkins of orange and pink in early spring. Salix reptans, Boyd's Pendulous, will cascade down a rock wall or out of a large container.

The Fantail Willow, Salix sachalinensis, has interesting curved stems used in floral arrangements. Willows have long been used around the world for basket weaving and "bent wood" furniture. Salix purpurea, Dicky Meadows; Salix petiolaris, Slender Willow, and Salix rigida, American McKay, are varieties of willow developed for basket weaving.

Using willows
Willows are used in the home landscape to provide early spring color, winter color, for cut- and dried-flower arrangements, for quick shade, for fast-growing windbreaks, for hedges and as specimen plants.

Willows help control bank erosion in wet areas. Goldfinches and other small songbirds like to nest in shrubby willows. The buds are a favorite food of Ruffled Grouse. Willow leaves are food plants of many native butterfly larvae.

In ancient times willows were associated with magic and mystic feminism. Magic wands are made with willow wood.

Willows have a long history of medicinal use in indigenous peoples around the world. Aspirin is a chemical copy of salicylic acid, which is found in the bark of willow plants. Willow bark extract or the synthetic copy, aspirin, is used to treat fever and pain.

Never plant willows too close to septic fields or sewer or water lines. The root range far and deep in search of water, and when they find it, they invade, often plugging pipes and destroying septic fields.

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