Gardening: Where there’s a Willow... there’s a colourful way

Salix alba Vitellina looks impressive on cold bright mornings.
Salix alba Vitellina looks impressive on cold bright mornings.
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There is so much more to Willow (Salix) than a pioneer tree that competes with buddleias to reclaim derelict wasteland, or the graceful but often oversized plant for most gardens, and Weeping Willows associated with riverbanks, lakesides and parklands.

In fact I would go as far as saying there is a Willow suitable for any garden, so long as you can make up your mind what it is you are looking for.

Willow has many other uses besides its ornamental qualities; basket-making, weaving and for living screens and structures. Its ability to root so easily has made it extremely important in riverbank stabilisation, a method that is centuries old and one that we have utilised on our streamside, and that’s not forgetting its habitat and biodiversity qualities.

But, my main interest in willow is its aesthetic qualities, which there are many. From tall tree willows, willows that only get to waste height, willows for interesting foliage, willows for dazzling winter coloured stems and willows for interesting catkins, these are often some of the earliest flowers of the season.

My main use for willows is for their stem colours and their catkins, which I put to good use on the Winter Walk, combined with textural evergreens, Cornus, (which also provide fantastic winter stem colour) and early spring bulbs such as Iris, Galanthus and Cyclamen, they provide a stunning combination of vibrant colours and textures that last through the winter months.

In most cases you have to make up your mind if you want stem colour or catkins, as most varieties are best grown for either one or the other. An exception to this, which we grow, is Salix acutifolia ‘Blue streak’ – a truly stunning plant. The young stems are very dark, but covered in a white film or bloom which gives the appearance of it being an icy pale blue. To top this off, from the second year on, the tips of the branches are covered in masses of brilliant silver/white catkins produced in abundance, these last for many weeks before they finally open fully in mid-March.

Salix alba Vitellina is a very striking plant, the young stems are a fiery orange, getting deeper towards the ends, whereas, Salix alba ‘Golden Ness’ is a vivid, bold yellow, both looking at their best when illuminated with the low light on a bright frosty morning.

All varieties of willow are easy to grow in my experience, but it is worth remembering that if it’s the bold vivid stem colour you are after, you will have to be ruthless with your pruning, pollarding or coppicing annually to encourage the vigorous and brightly coloured young stems around late March. But if it’s the catkins you desire, leave the plants well alone, as these are often produced on mature growth, however, if they become too big, as can often be the case, they will also respond very well to a hard prune.

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