The word “willow” often conjures up images of the gargantuan Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica) with, as Michael Pollan puts it, “a telephone booth size trunk” and roots that can penetrate sewer lines and septic tanks. But don’t discount the entire genus just because of the Weeping Willow’s bad behavior. There are around 500 species in the genus and only a few of the larger trees have invasive tendencies. The smaller ornamental willow shrubs and trees I grow and sell are well-behaved and can be kept compact with pruning. An annual hard pruning will also improve overall habit and twig color, in addition to yielding decorative branches for floral arrangements or baskets. All trees listed below may be maintained as shrubs by pruning or coppicing (pruning back to the ground). Why not plant a curly willow snow fence or privacy screen?
‘Coral Bark’ Curly Willow (Salix sepulcralis ‘Erythroflexuosa’)
Tree/shrub, hardy to zone 3. Grows to 25 feet or can be kept pruned as a shrub. Bark on older wood is a golden, coppery color. Newest growth turns a coral red color in fall, which persists throughout winter and into early spring. Branches are both contorted and pendulous. This is an excellent specimen tree/shrub for fall and winter interest as the red curly twigs look great against a backdrop of snow or evergreens. Branches are lovely in floral arrangements. Winter twig color.
Scarlet Curly Willow (descriptions and photos coming soon)
Yellow Curly Willow (exact variety not known)
Tree/shrub, hardy to zone 3. Grows to 25 feet or can be kept pruned as a shrub. Golden bark with caramel-colored tips. A wonderful accent tree/shrub with fall and winter interest, and beautiful catkins in spring. Use branches in floral arrangements. Fast-growing and makes a great privacy screen. Newest growth has the most intense coloration, and curl improves on second year growth. Branches grow more upright than the Coral Bark variety. Winter twig color.
Green Curly Willow (Salix matsudana ‘tortuosa’)
Tree/shrub, hardy to zone 5. Grows to 25 feet if left unpruned, otherwise can be maintained as a smaller tree or shrub. Green contorted branches provide multi-season interest, especially in winter after leaves have dropped. Branches grow upright and curl is excellent. Nice in floral arrangements. Fast-growing and makes a great privacy screen. No room to plant in the ground? Enjoy year-round in a container- these overwinter well. Keep pruned for optimum curliness.
Japanese Pussy Willow (Salix chaenomeloides)
Shrub, hardy to zone 4. Grows 12-15 feet or can be kept compact via pruning. Produces rabbit foot size catkins in spring, and metallic red buds in winter. Branches can be used in floral arrangements.
Black Pussy Willow (Salix melanostachys)
Shrub, hardy to zone 4. Slowly grows to 8 feet- a perfect specimen for city gardeners with limited space. Highly ornamental with reddish-black catkins in spring and red twigs in winter. Lovely in floral arrangements.
‘Rubykins’ Willow (Salix koriyanagi ‘Rubykins)
Shrub, hardy to zone 4. Grows to 10 feet. Miniature pink catkins in early spring. Lovely in floral arrangements.
Japanese Fantail Willow (Salix sachalinensis ‘Sekka’)
Tree/shrub, hardy to zone 4. Grows 12-20 feet, or can be kept smaller via pruning. Airy, graceful, almost tropical habit. Produces highly ornamental flattened, contorted branches covered with catkins (like nothing you’ve ever seen!). Rich, reddish-brown bark in winter along with unusual shape and texture look great against a backdrop of snow. Lovely in floral arrangements.