Monday, September 13, 2010

The Answer My Friend Is Written In The Wind

Most plants of the willow family have long "whips" with thin leaves.

This is our "Corkscrew Willow" aka "Dragon's Claw Willow" (Salix matsudana "Tortuosa".) It has branches and leaves that literally go in a winding manner. It doesn't droop as much as the weeping variety.

This is our "Golden Weeping Willow" (Salix alba "tristis). It's known for it golden winter stems and spring buds.

It's a beautiful sight - a willow tree blowing in the breeze. Graceful, almost like the waves of the sea.

In this area, the weeping variety is what most people visualize at the mention of willow tree. Old mature trees are often seen close to streams and other water sources. Once popular and seen in every farm house yard, they have lost their appeal in modern times.

I think the Willow gets a bum rap. I realize they may not be ideal for small city lots, but, anywhere there is room to mature, they are a beautiful sight.

Their bad reputation comes from their roots ability to search out water. In the days of old tile drains, they would find any crack and eventually clog the sewer tiles, septic tanks and water lines making for an expensive repair. Today's drain tiles keep that from happening. It is also a myth that they will break down the wall of basements. While I don't advise planting as a foundation plant, their roots will not harm an otherwise good foundation wall. A word of warning: if you live in an old home, with old water equipment, do not plant a willow around any of your tiles, drains, or tanks. That is unless you want an excuse for all new...

With that said, they are moisture loving trees although they will survive in dryer soil.

Most old willows have had heavy wind, ice and lightening damage. They are not known for being particularly strong mostly because of their very nature to bend and move. Our corkscrew had the main leader damaged in a bad ice storm and the weeping routinely sheds whips in heavy storms. A badly damaged willow can not be "repaired" to look pretty and usually needs to be taken out if it is placed where it might fall on valuable objects. Otherwise, let it look like an old soldier that still tries to stand at attention although bent and worn.

Our weeping willow requires a "haircut" at least once a summer to enable us to mow under it. I really do love the sweeping look of the long whips dragging the ground and dancing over the grass but it's totally impossible to make one's way through it on the riding mower. If the willow isn't cut, it makes an excellent hide-a-way for youngsters pretending to be in an enchanted forest.

The Golden Willow is the first sign of color in the spring. The leaves of willows are so small they really don't need raking in the fall and the whips can be mowed instead of raked.

Willows can become very LARGE trees quickly. My weeping willow will eventually grow to 60 feet and very broad. The corkscrew will be 40 foot although more upright. The new hybrids are much more vigorous and strong. They all like full sun and moisture. Most are hardy in our Zone 5 and colder.

The willow is not a native American plant although seen throughout most states. The weeping willow bark was used medicinally by Native Americans to treat headaches. The bark contains salicylic acid, an ingredient later used to make aspirin.

Make sure you check out the pros and cons of your willow choices before investing. Know size, maintenance needs, and if they are prone to pests and diseases. The right willow in the right spot enhances the landscape - especially when the wind blows the branches like the sea.


  1. I live in zone 6 and am looking for a willow that wouldn't get any bigger than Corkscrew Willow but, has the beauty of the Golden Weeping Willow. It's going to be planted about 10'-15' away from our well head. I am concerned about the roots. Although our well was dug in 1997. What would you recommend?

  2. If your well head/liner is newer, the willow roots shouldn't break it. As for the top portion, you may try a dwarf variety but even then the roots will seek moisture. And never plant near your foundation. If you're concerned, don't plant a willow. There are many other beautiful trees that don't have such wandering roots and do not get large. As a side note: I saw a row of Golden Weeping Willow along a very long rural driveway last week. It was stunning.