01 Feb ‘Swizzlestick’
Plant names have intrigued me for as long as I can remember. Botanical, common and cultivar names have always been fun for me and at times, challenging to remember. Take the name ‘Swizzlestick’ for example. A cultivar name purposely given to evoke images of an attribute of the swizzlestick tree, Quararibea turbinata, an evergreen tree found in South America, the Caribbean and the Dominican Republic. This tree is sometimes harvested from the wild for medicinal purposes as well as a source for low-quality wood. However, it was an ingenious islander, most likely, who first conjured up the idea to use one of the trees stalks as a tool to mix crushed ice with rum, juice, spice and sugar. Necessity bore invention, as they say, and the Swizzlestick tree later became harvested for its unique branches and the purpose of amalgamating the perfect libation. Today, we can enjoy such Bermudian cocktails as Rum Swizzle and Dark & Stormy thanks to this late 18th century invention in the West Indies. Just be careful not to indulge too much or “swizzle in and swizzle out” (Dan Bartiromo) may take on new meaning.
Salix ‘Swizzlestick’ is a unique plant that has gained popularity recently thanks to the efforts of Darrell Probst, collector, nurseryman and famed hybridizer, who found this selection on the Connecticut/New York border in 1987. This Corkscrew Willow has twisted, ascending, orange-yellow stems, with a touch of coral at maturity, that are gorgeous in our colder months. Delicate, narrow, curly green leaves clothe this interior structure in our warmer months, turning yellow in the fall. Salt and extremely wet-site tolerant, ‘Swizzlestick’ can quickly attain heights of 15-20 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Other notable qualities of this famed willow type include being clay soil tolerant, useful for flower arrangements with its cut branches, an alluring plant support stake and a handsome alternative to the ever popular Alberta spruce in your outdoor containers. ‘Swizzlestick’s’ branching seems to “writhe in ecstasy” (Vermont Willow Nursery) as its extremities point towards the sky. Hardy to Zone 5 and appreciative of more sun than shade, I have seen ‘Swizzlestick’ used as an effective, unique and inexpensive hedge handsomely. Moreover, I have seen it used to welcome visitors at Bistro Seven Three, a restaurant in New Providence, New Jersey. Positioned behind two columns, I found it refreshing that this plant was used in lieu of more pedestrian answers like Boxwood or Alberta spruce. Clearly the epicurean’s that dine at Bistro Seven Three will be treated to fine cuisine paired with interesting plants.
There seems to be some academic challenge as to ‘Swizzlestick’s’ true family origin and rightfully so. The contention is that it is possibly a cross between White Willow, Salix alba and Hankow/Peking Willow, Salix matsudana. Plausible in a sense that ‘Swizzlestick’s’ attributes of curly stems and that it lacks the hairiness and glaucous undersides of White Willow foliage certainly suggest such a theory. The hiccup for me however, is that White willow is naturalized in North America and Hankow Willow is native to China and northeast Asia.
‘Swizzlestick’ benefits from periodically being coppiced (cut to the ground in late winter offering a renewed exuberance). This conversation plant is suitable for any garden as its footprint is small. Be careful not to stare too long at ‘Swizzlestick’ if you partake in a few Rum Swizzles as their wriggling interior structure may start to play tricks on you.