Where would we be without willow?
Just think how we'd miss it – the ‘thwack' of a leather ball on a willow cricket bat – or the peaceful sight of willow-lined streams and rivers, their leaves trailing gracefully in the slowly moving water. But we are in mid-winter now, what is this talk of lazy afternoons on river bank and village green? Partly this is deliberate, to give you all a little lift through these shortest of days, but also because willow is so versatile that it is a brilliant winter interest tree too. So winter or summer, we really couldn’t do without it!
Many gardeners already value the qualities of a wide range of willow species, some of which are very compact and can bring the delights of willow to the smallest garden. Just think of the fabulous corkscrew stems of the Salix matsudana ‘tortuosa’ that bring so much interest when the leaves are off the trees. Or the wonderful brightly coloured branches of Salix alba ‘Britzensis’. There is also the beauty of the catkins (also known as ‘pussy willow’). Charming to look at and delightful to touch, these are a true harbinger of spring. They produce a delicious, sweet honey fragrance that attracts bees and butterflies, giving you instant biodiversity!
Cut back confidently to guarantee winter colour
The most colourful stems are always the young shoots, so if this is your priority you must cut shoots back vigorously to a little above ground level each spring. This way the tree is kept as a shrub and you are guaranteed a fabulous display in the coming autumn and winter. The coral bark willow (Salix alba ‘Britenzis’) is an excellent choice for this approach, as is Salix alba x fragilis. This salix is very vigorous and produces stems that vary in colour along their length – bright green at their base, orange in the middle and bright red at their tips.
Many willows that you buy in garden centres are grafted onto rootstocks of specific heights – for example Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki’ or ‘Kilmarnock’. Both of these are widely available and ideal for smaller spaces. ‘Kilmarnock’ is renowned for its yellow-grey catkins which bloom from March to May and both this and Salix matsudana ‘tortuosa’ will fit into almost any garden.
Willows are tough. They thrive on wet, heavy soils and need little attention apart from the pruning described above. There is the added bonus that you can use the stems that you prune for indoor decoration, perhaps as part of your flower arrangements.
Interesting to know:
- Salix caprea is one of the more widespread willows. It is known as the ‘goat willow’ because historically it was an important food source for goats. The buds (pussy willow) are very attractive, covered with a silvery thick coat. Leaves are large and elliptical with grey-white hairs on their undersides.
- Willow bark was used in the past as an effective remedy for rheumatism and gout. The bark contains traces of salicin which is the main ingredient of asprin and apparently simply chewing a piece of bark can relieve pain.
- Willows are a very distinctive element of certain UK landscapes (think of the willows growing on the Somerset Levels). They are also hallmarks of the Dutch and Flemish landscape too, as you can see in may of the paintings of the ‘Old Masters’.
- Once pollarded, willows should be pruned back regularly, otherwise the branches can grow too heavy and split the tree apart under their weight.
- Willows are the perfect habitat for may birds, mammals, bats and insects. The branches and trunk (which in older trees may be hollow) provide shelter, nesting places and even food.