Willow, the name itself conjures up images of a large weeping tree near a pond reflecting itself. Graceful, pendulous branches almost touching the waters edge, this tree is a failsafe for those seeking a tree that will tolerate wet areas. Capable of gobbling up and correcting almost any wet area, there are many willows that are unique, colorful and tame.
Starting with a small willow, Salix nakamurana var. yezoalpina has long been a favorite of mine. Ten years ago a colleague asked me to make a list of my favorite plants. Nearly 400 trees, shrubs and perennials later I had this one towards the top of my list. A deciduous shrub native to the mountain slopes of Hokkaido Japan, “hardy” from zones 4-8, this garden gem only grows a foot high and about 6 feet wide. A prostrate, creeping willow this one is commonly called yezo dwarf willow or creeping alpine willow. This alpine groundcover thrives in harsh environments and crawls in and around crevices and over rock. Developing a rather wide trunk that hardly ever grows larger than a foot, reddish-brown branches push out in all directions. The highlight, for me anyway, is the silky, fuzzy catkins that stand upright along the branches in the early spring. These yellowish catkins, a name given because they resemble the pads on a cat’s paw, are about 2 inches long. Clothed with deep green leaves in the summer, these same leaves turn shades of yellow with a hint of red in the fall.
Hoary Willow, Salix candida ‘Silver Fox’ fits our medium sized willow criteria quite well. A fantastic smaller shrub valued for its impressive silver leaves, we have Tony Huber to thank for this contribution who found the plant in Newfoundland in 1987. ‘Silver Fox’s’ winter attributes intrigue me even more though. Dramatic yellow winter buds and twigs are a precursor of things to come. A wetland plant suited to rich, wet soil types and cooler temperatures, ‘Silver Fox’ is also a stunner for container gardening. The compact, globe habit of this plant neatly fills out a 4-6 foot footprint and is “hardy” to zone 4. Another mid sized willow for your garden could be a Dappled Willow type, Salix integra ‘Flamingo’. Amazing leaf color on this garden jewel, expect pink, white and apple green here. Fresh, long lasting, weather resistant color resists Mother Nature’s harsh winds and heavy rains. Not prone to any major pests or diseases, the younger, more-tender new growth is something to marvel at. In the early spring, before the leaves emerge, mature shoots will push slender, yellow catkins. Late summer/early fall expect markings of dappled white and apple green. Even in the dead of winter bright red stems sparkle on trimmed plants. Manageable at 4-6 feet tall and wide, periodic pruning not only controls its frame but insures a rebirth of fresh, colorful new growth. For more information on this plant visit www.gardensplendor.com “Plants Worth Remembering”.
Another Dappled Willow that has captured the attention of gardeners in recent years is Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki’. Thought by many, to maintain a tight, compact habit, nothing could be further from the truth. ‘Hakuro-nishiki’ grows in full sun and thrives in moist soil. Similar markings to ‘Flamingo’, ‘Hakuro-nishiki’ grows 15 feet tall and wide. A few years ago I won a bet suggesting this plant for a residential garden. Approached with a fiscally challenging budget, others suggested spruce, pine and hemlock. The goal was only to achieve a 10-foot hedge and it didn’t need to be evergreen. With a $45.00 price point we were not only under budget, we exceeded expectations in two years creating a colorful wall. Both ‘Flamingo’ and ‘Hakuro-nishiki’ benefit from heavy pruning in early spring, when still dormant, late spring to early summer and finally, again, at the end of summer. After all, it’s the new growth that is so colorful on both these plants and frequent pruning ensures vibrant markings.
Finally, the big boy that most envision is Golden Weeping Willow, Salix x ‘Niobe’. Standing, at maturity, some 40 to 50 feet tall and 20-30 feet wide, this handsome candidate is one of the first to leaf out in the spring and last to drop its leaves in the fall. Arguably its most impressive attribute is the yellow bark on younger branches. Truly a stunner from any distance, ‘Niobe’ is tolerant of wet, clay and deer. Willows like this, again, are what many envision and why most are cautious when they hear the name. Now you know better though!