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Deciduous, Shrubs, Trees

Classic streamside trees, willows are fast growing, weak-wooded, and short-lived. Weeping willows are best used as single trees near a stream or lake, though they can, with training, become satisfactory shade trees for a patio or terrace. They leaf out very early in spring and hold their foliage late. Shrubby willows are grown mainly for catkins (this group goes by the name “pussy willow”) or colorful twigs, as screen plants, or for erosion control on stream or riverbanks. For this last purpose, locally offered native types are best. Pussy willow branches can be cut in bud and brought indoors to bloom. Willows take any soil; most even tolerate poor drainage. All have shallow, invasive roots and are difficult to garden under; don’t plant near sewer lines. Most are subject to pests (tent caterpillars, aphids, borers, and spider mites).

Twig blight may be a problem in the Northwest (spray copper fungicide on new foliage); Texas root rot may cause trouble in the desert. Species hybridize readily, resulting in much confusion of names in the nursery trade.

Salix alba (photo courtesy of Science Photo Library/Alamy)
Salix alba (photo courtesy of Science Photo Library/Alamy)

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Salix alba

This tree is from Europe and North Africa. Upright grower to 75–100 ft. tall and 50–100 ft. wide. Yellowish brown bark. Narrow, 1 1/2–4-in., bright green leaves are silvery beneath, may turn golden in fall. The following forms are valued for colorful twigs.

S. a. ‘Tristis’ (S. babylonica aurea, S. ‘Niobe’) (Golden weeping willow). Grows to 50–70 ft. tall and as wide or wider, with pendulous form. Young stems are bright yellow. Among the most attractive weeping willows.

S. a. vitellina. Upright, with brilliant yellow twigs in winter. Can grow to tree size, but cutting back gives best color display: lop to 1 ft. high yearly, just before spring growth begins. Stems may grow 8 ft. in a season. ‘Britzensis’ has red or orange-red winter stems.

Salix babylonica
Salix babylonica

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Salix babylonica

From China. This tree grows to 30–50 ft. tall and wide (or wider). Has longer (3–6 in.) leaves and a more pronounced weeping habit than S. alba ‘Tristis’. Greenish or brown branchlets. ‘Crispa’ (‘Annularis’), ringleaf or corkscrew willow, has leaves curled into rings or circles; it is somewhat narrower than the species.

Salix caprea

Native from Europe to northeastern Asia. Grows to 15–25 ft. tall and 12–15 ft. wide. Broad, 3–6-in.-long leaves are dark green above, gray and hairy beneath. Before leafout, male plants produce fat, woolly, pinkish gray catkins about 1 in. long. Can be kept to shrub size by cutting to the ground every few years.

Salix discolor

Native to the eastern United States. Grows to 15–25 ft. tall and 12–15 ft. wide. Slender red-brown stems; bright green, 2–4-in. leaves have bluish undersides. Catkins of male plants are the main draw: soft, silky, pearl gray, to 1/2 in. long.

Salix matsudana

Native to north Asia. This tree has upright, pyramidal growth to 40–50 ft. tall and 30–40 ft. wide. Bright green, narrow, 2–4-in.-long leaves. Can thrive on less water and saltier soil than most willows. This species and its varieties are popular in the high desert.

Salix purpurea

From Europe, North Africa, and central and eastern Asia. This shrub grows to 15 ft. tall and wide, with purple branches. Narrow, 1–3-in.-long leaves are dark green above, bluish beneath. Cut shrub to the ground if overgrown. ‘Canyon Blue’ grows fast to 5 ft. tall and 4 ft. wide, with blue-gray leaves. ‘Gracilis’ (‘Nana’), dwarf purple osier, has slimmer branches and narrower leaves; it is usually grown as clipped hedge and kept 1–3 ft. tall and wide. 

‘Hakuro Nishiki’

From Korea and Japan. This shrub grows to 4–6 ft. tall and wide; somewhat weeping. Stems and leaf buds are salmon pink; leaves are 4 in. long, 1/2 to 1 1/4 in. wide, light green mottled with white and pink. Best in partial shade.

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