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Where there’s a willow, there’s a way

1 May 2021
Weeping willows add an invaluable greenness to a water scene.

A versatile tree to have in the garden, Salix can be the answer for many garden situations.

Words Sue Witteman

When you think of any stream flowing languorously along, you automatically imagine the edges decorated with weeping willows, for water and willows go together like bacon and eggs. Of course you need to have room to accommodate these larger willows, but, if you do, there are several to consider.

If it is a traditional weeping look that you want then the green weeping willow, Salix babylonica, will provide a large, wide tree with the requisite pendulous branches down to the ground. If you fancy a touch of yellow, plant the golden weeping willow, S. vitellina ‘Aurea Pendula’ (syn. S. × sepulcralis var. chrysocoma). With its sweeping yellow branches and fresh green leaves it is a handsome fellow, the yellow of the bare branches still providing interest in winter.

Another willow that readily springs to mind is S. matsudana ‘Tortuosa’, the tortured (or corkscrew) willow. Living up to its name, all parts of the tree are twisted and, once again, this tree looks just as good without its leaves.
For an upright willow and one that is evergreen in milder climates, there is
S. humboldtiana. Humboldt’s willow grows tall but only 1.5m wide, making it useful for screening or for narrow places.

If, however, you have been thinking that you need a willow in your life but you only have a modest section, then do not despair for there are some small, well-behaved willows that may just fulfil your willow desires. S. ‘Moondance’ is a delightful smaller willow to have in your garden or in a pot. It sprouts delicate silvery-green leaves from the top, not unlike a firework going off. I have used it in a courtyard situation, planted along each side with squares of Viburnum tinus between each one. (Actually, the viburnum was perhaps a mistake as it was regularly attacked by dastardly thrips – the salix always looked good though.) It can be trimmed to keep a more compact shape.

Another garden-friendly willow is S. caprea ‘Pendula’ (syn. S. caprea ‘Kilmarnock’), the Kilmarnock willow. With cascading branches reaching down to the ground, it forms a small weeping mound of grey-green leaves. It doesn’t much matter whether it is in leaf or not as the branch structure is interesting on its own. Little furry pussy-willow buds appear on the bare branches in late winter, when it is, of course, compulsory to go up to the tree and stroke them.

Kilmarnock willows lend themselves to being pruned into an umbrella shape. They look equally fine if you don’t, but if you want to add a bit of fun or formality to your garden then some shaping may be in order. For several years I pruned one into an umbrella shape but, eventually, after a windy night, it blew down. The canopy was too wide and, just like a windy day in Wellington, the umbrella lost the battle. Plant it in a sheltered place and thin out some of the congested branches to reduce the effect of wind on this willow.

Cuttings can be taken when they are semi-ripe or, for some species, cut ‘poles’ can be stuck in the ground, usually in winter, where they will root and grow. This method is used when making a willow hut or arch.

Growing conditions
Willows are fond of consistent, accessible water, perhaps a little too fond as they will seek out any drainage pipes in the area, so plant any willows where they can do no rooty harm. While moisture is much liked, they can adapt to other conditions if they have too. Wind isn’t usually an issue as they can withstand most winds. Full sun is a must.

Fun with willows

Basket or osier willow is grown to make woven baskets. There are several willows you can use – S. viminalis, S. purpurea, S. triandra, S. viminalis ‘Gigantea’ to name a few, various cultivars having colourful stems in shades of red, purple, gold and yellow. About three years after planting, coppice them to achieve a multi-stemmed bush – this will become the raw material for your basket-making.

Making a willow hut
The making of willow huts, or tunnels to crawl along, is often seen on overseas gardening programmes and is a fun and easy idea children will enjoy.

Cut as many poles as you will need to create your structure. Preferably do this when the donor willow is dormant (you can also use coppiced stems) as you will achieve a better strike rate than if you take material during summer.

Water the area to be ‘planted’ a day or two beforehand, then make the holes for the willow poles. Decide if you want to plant them vertically or on a slant and if you are going to weave them together or gather them in at the top.

Plant them quite deeply to ensure there is adequate rooting and to add stability to the structure. Place the poles reasonably close together for a quicker effect, keep up the moisture at the crucial rooting stage and, when the structure gets leafy branchlets, trim them to help thicken it all up.
Not only an idea for children, make a bigger one for yourself for the end-of-the-day gin or wine! Arches can also be made from willow, adding a rustic charm to your garden.

Fences of willow
Evocative of the English countryside, willow fencing has been a traditional form of fencing over the ages. It looks amazing in a garden, either as a divider or as a support for climbers. Made from dry willow branches or woven from living material, you could find someone who sells it pre-made.

Floral uses
The well-known twisted or corkscrew willow is used in floral work, its bare twisty stems adding interest to arrangements – or even used in a bunch on their own. Branches of pussy willows are also florally desirable. Wreaths can be fashioned from thin willow branches when they are still flexible and left to dry before using.

Willow water
When propagating cuttings of other plants, don’t forget to make up some ‘willow water’ to soak them in – this helps to speed up the rooting process. One way to create this is to put chopped first-year twigs in a container, cover with boiling water and leave to cool overnight. Separate the twigs and you’re good to grow.

This is just a taste of the willows that are available – there’s a wide range of sizes too, from small to huge. Choose a willow to match the size of your garden and enjoy the green calmness that only a willow can bring.

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A herald of spring – furry pussy willows.
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