There are more than 300 willow species to choose from, with features including ornamental stems and attractive grey-green foliage, along with the wonderful catkins (known as pussy willow) that some species are renowned for. It’s the male plants that put on a show in spring, with pollen-laden catkins attracting early bees. However, some species are cultivated for their weeping habit or contorted stems. Willows come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from very large to dwarf cultivars, so there’s one to suit almost every garden.
Where to grow willows
Willows grow best in deep, moist but well-drained soil in full sun. Some varieties like to grow in very damp soil, near water, but avoid planting near a house, as the root system can invade drains and foundations.
How to plant willows
You can buy pot-grown willows, but many species are also available to buy as a ‘withy’. A withy is a single willow stem. Willow stems are very quick to root and extremely maleable, so they’re perfect for weaving into growing willow structures.
How to propagate willow
Willows are easy to propagate from withies or cuttings. You can take softwood cuttings in early summer or hardwood cuttings in winter, which will root quickly once in the ground.
Growing willows: problem solving
Willows and salix can be prone to the large willow aphid. Although this does not harm the plant, sooty mould can develop on the honeydew excreted by the aphids, which is is unattractive. Willow can also succumb to honey fungus.
How to care for your willow
Willows respond well to hard pruning and coppicing. Some varieties need a good chop to encourage their ornamental features. If you’re growing willow for colourful winter stems, prune hard in spring for the new growth that will be on display the following winter after the leaves have dropped. Likewise, a late winter prune can also encourage lush foliage growth.
Willow varieties to try
- Salix ‘Magnifica Foot’ – a very ornamental variety because of its long catkins. It’s slow growing, with an upright habit which makes it a good choice for a smaller, sheltered garden. It can be kept pruned as a shrub or left to grow into a small tree. Pruning it back hard encourages new growth of attractive, large leaves. However, it’s a little tender, so if not in a sheltered spot, it’s worth growing in a pot that can be moved indoors in autumn.
- Salix alba subsp. vitellina ‘Britzensis’ – usually grown for the colourful bark of new stems which are a great asset for the garden in winter. Easy to grow, it needs pruning to encourage the new growth and is best planted in groups in larger borders. The Royal Horticultural Society has given it its prestigious Award of Garden Merit (AGM).
- Salix alba ‘White Willow’ – this classic riverbank willow has wonderfully textured bark and silvery green leaves with typical spring catkins. It’s a good choice as a hedge or windbreak when planted in larger areas.
- Salix integra ‘Hakuro-Nishiki’ – also known as the flamingo tree, this is a very ornamental, dwarf variety, usually grown as a standard patio tree in a pot. The flamboyant foliage is a variegated mix of pink tips and green and white. A good choice for smaller gardens, it’s been given the prestigious RHS Award of Garden Merit.
- Salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’ – a new variety, this has attractive pale pink catkins in late winter and early spring. A great feature in winter, the silvery foliage that follows is also very attractive.
- Salix babylonica ‘Tortuosa’ – with its contorted branches and curly foliage, the corkscrew willow is a great feature plant all year round. The twisted stems are wonderfully sculptural in winter, contrasting well with the smooth bark, and are great for creating floral art. It can be grown as a large tree or pruned into a multi-stemmed version. The Royal Horticultural Society has given it its prestigious Award of Garden Merit (AGM).