Willows, Weeping No More

The bluestem willow, shown in fall. By cutting the stems each winter, or coppicing, new suckers emerge.
The bluestem willow, shown in fall. By cutting the stems each winter, or coppicing, new suckers emerge. (Bluestem Nursery)
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2007

Weeping willow trees are stately if short-lived plants in large landscapes. Place them behind a big pond, away from failing pipes or septic tanks, and they will bestow an agreeably melancholy air to your world.

But stick them in a hot, dry site too close to buildings or in the vicinity of weak drainpipes, and the sweet sorrow turns to bitter desperation as the roots seek out moisture and the branches rain down in a gale. Perhaps for these reasons, weeping willows aren't as popular as they once were -- but don't count out the willow just yet. Reinvented in its various forms (typically as a large but obedient shrub; there are about 300 species in all), the willow is about to experience a comeback. You heard it here first.

These shrubs are attractive, useful and exceedingly malleable. More than that, they will expand your vocabulary. You can impress friends and colleagues by talking about coppicing and pollarding, and if you venture into the world of weaving fence panels from dried stems (see sidebar), you can even wattle with your withies.

Willow shrubs take ordinary soil but will thrive in wet conditions where few other plants will. Case in point: I planted three large hybrid lavender plants in a hilly border I took to be dry. It wasn't, and the lavenders perished in a wet spring. I replaced them with a variegated variety of the gray willow called Tricolor. Left alone, each will grow to 15 feet, a tad higher than the lavender, but by cutting the willows back hard before new growth emerges in early April, they grow four to seven feet in a season and stay in scale.

A few willows are grown for their catkins, but most have a far more ornamental trick up their sleeves: the color of the stems. This trait is most noticeable in winter, when the canes are bare, but it is fully expressed only on young stems. Fortunately, the willow responds well to a hard cutback in March. A willow cut annually at ground level is coppiced; one lopped higher is pollarded. Coppicing in particular will trigger four to 11 feet of bright new growth during the growing season, depending on variety and available moisture, said Jim Brockmeyer, whose company, Bluestem Nursery, ships 44 varieties of willow.

A visit to his Web site will reveal some of these choice colors. One of the brightest reds is a variety of the white willow named Britzensis. Another is named Vitellina, the golden willow, but this grows into a large tree and would need annual coppicing to keep in bounds. The dwarf Arctic willow has purple-maroon stems and stays below eight feet, coppiced or not.

Perhaps the most striking of all the willows, Brockmeyer said, is the bluestem willow, Salix irrorata. Coppiced in late winter, the new whips emerge an eye-catching red. In June, the stems develop the same sort of cast or "bloom" one sees on fruit or even raspberry canes, and the hue changes to lavender-blue, persisting through fall.

The willingness of willows to bounce back from a winter coppicing makes them extremely useful as a hedge or even screen in tight quarters if you are committed to annual pruning and accept that these shrubs may peter out after 10 years of hard pruning. They benefit from watering in periods of drought, and they won't work in deep shade.

The other great aspect of willows, their ability to grow from winter cuttings stuck directly into the mud, makes them ideal (and affordable) for use as living willow structures: fences, arbors, tunnels, tepees and shelters for seats. "It's really anything that can be built with wood," said Ron Harrison, who with his wife, Bobbie, owns one of the few other suppliers of specialty willows in North America.

Their Edmonton, Ky., nursery, Willow Dreams Farm ( http://www.willowdreamsfarm.com, 270-432-4486), sells nine-inch cuttings in bundles. Bury seven inches in the ground and lo, the stick will root and grow in the spring. The other method is to use much longer cuttings -- rods -- which begin to achieve the desired effect in their first season. The Harrisons won't ship the longer rods, fearing damage or delay in transit. Brockmeyer does sell them, six to seven feet long, as well as 11-inch cuttings.

The Harrisons planted their farm to provide stock for basket weavers, and this remains an important part of the business, but the landscape uses of willow are poised to take off, they believe.

"It's an interesting group of plants," Ron Harrison said. "They've been around for so long, and people have just passed over them. They're beginning to notice the potential." The nursery ships cuttings until March 15 at $1 per cutting with a minimum order of 10. Shipping is extra.

Brockmeyer recommends a living fence of diagonal rods, buried 8 to 12 inches and spaced at 15 to 18 inches along a row. They are sold in bundles of 10, which will give you about seven linear feet of living fence. His comprehensive Web site, http://www.bluestem.ca, lists many varieties suited to this use, including Britzensis, Vitellina and several types of purple or basket willow.

The rods are cut in March and April and must be planted as soon as they arrive. His nursery is in Christina Lake, British Columbia (250-447-6363), but he ships to the United States from Laurier, Wash. The minimum order is two bundles. Shipping and a U.S. customs plant certificate are extra.

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