Willow trees have been muses for artists, poets, and gardeners for centuries. Imagine long, weeping branches hanging pendulous over a gently flowing stream.
Did you know there are more than 300 different types of willow trees and shrubs? Many of these can be seen beautifully embedded in residential landscapes and public spaces today.
How easy is it to add willows to your garden? How easy are they to care for? Keep reading and the answers to these questions, and others, will be revealed. You may be surprised at how “low-maintenance” willows actually are.
Types Of Willow Tree
The Willow Tree (Salix) is part of a larger genus of deciduous trees and shrubs called Salicaceae. If you’re looking to incorporate a willow into your garden, there are quite a few varieties within this family, to choose from.
Whether the planting location you have in mind is large or small, there will most likely be a willow cultivar to fit.
When imagining different types of willow trees in your garden, it is important to keep in mind 3 key considerations. Firstly, the size of the tree or shrub at maturity. Secondly, where it should be planted in relation to your home. Finally, your hardiness zone in relation to that of the tree or shrub.
This famous weeper presents clusters of long, narrow leaves that line each lithe, downward-arching branch, in short intervals. Creating a soft green canopy, with faint hints of silver, that turns a buttery yellow, in autumn.
The celebrated weeping willow can reach 30-40ft tall with a 35ft spread, at maturity. Small spring sprays of tiny yellow or red florets (depending on the cultivar) cover this tree, in zones 6-8, when planted in full sun or partial shade and moist, loamy, well-draining soil.
Water newly-planted saplings regularly to maintain requisite moisture levels and encourage healthy root establishment. Once mature, rainfall will be sufficient.
A spring dose of a triple 10 or triple 20 NPK will promote optimal performance. Thinning the crown in spring, by pruning away crossing branches, will increase air circulation and help prevent disease.
This Prairie weeper presents similar features to its original cousin. Yet, its clustered leaves are positioned farther apart along each pendulous branch.
It can also tolerate much colder temperatures and grow to a larger 50’ tall by 30’ comprehensive, at maturity, in zones 3-6.
Reflecting the prairie sunset, this cascading willow reveals a subtle, golden glow when planted in full/partial sun and nutrient-rich, moist soil.
This cultivar develops a large, fast-growing root system that requires positioning in a large open space, at least 50ft away from your home.
Water your prairie cascade 2-3 times, weekly, to keep the soil moist. Fertilize in fall with a triple 10 (or 20) NPK, starting in the 2nd year of growth. In the same manner, as its cousin, pruning is only necessary to improve air circulation.
For smaller spaces, this dwarf willow provides a beautiful contrast against other plantings in borders or large pots.
Blue-green fronds spiraling around purple branches display a rounded growth habit. In spring, green catkins, with a lavender iridescence, rise through the foliage.
Maturing to a potential 15ft tall by 15ft wide, this shrub grows 2-8ft in just two years, depending on growing conditions. Several planted together would make a stunning privacy hedge or pruned foundation planting.
The Arctic Blue willow thrives in full sun and moist soil and is tolerant of occasional flooding, different soil types, and a range of climate conditions, in zones 2-9.
In areas with adequate rainfall, water this shrub only until established. Fertilizing isn’t necessary unless planted in poor soil. In severe winter regions, prune down to 2’ above the soil, to encourage vigorous spring growth.
This unusually showy willow is a stout, deciduous tree with a heavy-branching habit. Presenting long stems along which soft pink foliage emerges.
Leaves slowly mature into shades of grey-green and white, giving the tree a multi-colored appearance throughout the growing season. In autumn, leaves fall to reveal a dome of bright red branches.
Tri-colored willow trees grow 2-3ft per year, quickly achieving their maximum height of 8-10’ in three years. Thriving in zones 4-9, they’re surprisingly tolerant of most soil types.
Tri-colored willows need to be kept well-watered to develop such stunning color variations. When young, water twice per week, tapering off to weekly, as they age. Well-balanced fertilizer granules can be applied in early spring when needed, and pruning will only be needed to remove any broken or damaged branches.
Weeping willows are renowned for their dramatic, graceful appearance. The Pussy Willow is no different.
Thin branches extend from the main trunk creating a botanical fountain of soft, silvery tufts, in spring. Followed by two-toned leaves of green and silver that fade to gold and copper, in autumn.
The weeping Pussy Willow can mature to 8ft by 6ft but can be maintained to accommodate a smaller garden space. They prefer full sun (more light stimulates more catkins) or partial shade and will tolerate damp soil of any type, in zones 4-8.
If your soil is typically on the dry side, water 2-3 times per week to maintain adequate moisture. Fertilize in the fall, in the third year after planting. Prune only to remove damaged branches.
The White Pussy Willow takes the elegance of the weeping cultivar a step further with tall upright branches that radiate out from the top of a short stout trunk. Along which larger, white catkins bud on alternating sides.
Typically growing at a speedy rate of 2ft per year, this tree matures to a natural 25’ tall and wide. But, can be pruned to remain smaller.
Showing a unique drought tolerance and disease resistance, the white pussy willow still performs best in moist soil. Yet, is very accepting of different soil types and cold climates (zones 3-7).
While drought tolerant, watering twice a week, during extended dry spells, may still be necessary to prevent wilting. Fertilizing isn’t usually necessary. But, pruning after the second year will help maintain the desired shape.
Looking for a fast-growing willow to plant as a privacy barrier? A cross between a Hankow Willow and a White willow, this hybrid has long branches with slim, narrow leaves that display a green, ombre effect.
This tree grows at an accelerated rate of 6-10ft, per year, in zones 4-9. With a full maturity size of 50-75’ by 20-30’. When planted en masse, your privacy wall will fill in quickly.
These prefer at least four hours of direct sunlight, per day, and moist, well-draining soil. But, willow hybrids are not drought-tolerant. They benefit from a layer of mulch around their root zone.
These need quite a bit of water, just after planting, too. But, once established, rainfall is sufficient. Fertilizing isn’t necessary unless planted in poor soil. Yearly pruning will encourage thicker and more robust growth.
The soft, wispy appearance of this “goldilocks” willow comes from its yellow-green leaves that emerge with spiral or undulating contours.
Young branches, of bright golden color, arch downward, in weeping form. Then, thicken, straighten and darken, with age.
The Golden Curls willow matures to 30ft tall by 15ft wide, in just four years. We are providing solace and shade in open spaces, in zones 4-7.
Thriving in both sun and partial shade, color is vibrant and more pronounced in full sun and moist, well-draining soil.
Water Golden Willows regularly, in the first year, to promote healthy root establishment. To enable robust growth, apply slow-release granules with a well-balanced NPK, in spring.
Pruning isn’t required, but you can trim your Golden Curls’ weeping habit, to the desired shape.
Mother to the Golden Curls, the Corkscrew Willow is quite a mystical sight and will make an undeniable statement in your garden. Twisting leaves and branches create a rounded, vibrant green form that releases tiny floret sprigs from spring catkins.
Autumn brings soft shades of gold before winter reveals an eye-catching tree structure.
At a growth rate of 2ft per year, all these colors and form matures to a significant 30ft tall by 20ft wide, in zones 4-8.
The Corkscrew willow thrives in full sun to partial shade and is tolerant of most soil types as long as it remains moist.
Water this willow cultivar well during the first growing season. Fertilizing isn’t normally required unless leaves become pale and growth is slow. Prune regularly during the growing season to remove damaged branches.
The Goat Willow (native to Northern Europe) and the Pussy Willow (native to North America) are essentially the same trees (Salix caprea), but with slight differences based on the environmental adaptations.
This cultivar also exhibits tall, upright branches that extend out from a taller trunk. Catkins are more silver in color and the tree’s canopy can become much broader, with maturity.
Typically growing to a height of 25’ by 15’, the Goat willow has adapted to thrive in the slightly warmer climates of zones 4-8.
This willow variety performs best in full sun and fertile, moist, well-drained soils. Without adequate hydration, the Goat Willow will suffer yellowing leaves and withered branches. A nitrogen-rich fertilizer can be applied after the last frost.
Purple Osier Willow
The Purple Osier is a willow shrub that presents slender and glossy, magenta and green leaves from red buds that swell along upright-growing branches.
This densely formed shrub, with a potential, mature size of 10ft tall by 18ft wide, is a creative and cost-effective alternative to other hedge options, like boxwood. As fewer are needed to create a hedge and can be pruned in almost any shape.
Winter hardy in zones 3-7, the purple osier prefers full sun and deep, moist soil to accommodate its deep root system. Sensitive to drought, these shrubs do well with 1” of water per week. Fertilize young plants with a triple 20 NPK. Prune to promote vigorous spring growth.
This final willow specimen is wild and highly durable. The Coyote willow presents grey-green foliage on slim branches that reach out from a smooth trunk.
This shrub grows to 20ft tall and wide, in zones 4-6. It reseeds itself when planted in open spaces to form large colonies that can withstand cold weather, drought, and most soil types making this an ideal option for xeriscaping and eco-friendly garden design.
This shrub should only be grown in full sunlight and prefers sandy, well-draining soil. While still being quite tolerant of occasional flooding.
When grown in pots, Coyote willows require constant access to water through moist soil. Spring fertilizer may also be applied to potted specimens and pruning is only needed to maintain the desired shape.
How Fast Do Willow Trees Grow
Given the unique characteristics of the different types of willow trees we’ve seen (and the hundreds of others that make up this genus), it’s natural that each should grow at its own pace.
This pace will, of course, be affected by the hardiness zone and environmental conditions in which each grows. Willow trees and shrubs also grow faster when young, then slow as they mature.
In general, though, Willow trees typically grow at a rate of 12”-24”, per year, reaching maturity in 15-20 years. Willow shrubs exhibit a faster growth rate than trees, at 12”-36”, per year.
How To Make A Willow Tree Grow Faster
There’s really no way to get any willow tree variety to grow faster than it’s naturally able to. However, optimal care leads to optimal health and growth.
Proper pruning, in the right season (as dictated by your hardiness zone), will stimulate robust, new growth and budding. Late winter or early spring are usually the best times to prune.
Sufficient access to water and nutrients (especially for those grown in pots) will support that new growth. As well as a strong root system that will naturally be more drought-tolerant and resistant to pests and disease.
When Do Willow Trees Bloom
The blooming phase in Willow trees and shrubs is triggered by warming temperatures. In warm climates, this usually occurs sometimes in February. In colder climates, this is often delayed until June.
Long, nectar-filled “catkins” appear just before the budding of leaves. With the help of bees and other pollinators, willow seeds are ripe for sowing and the trees are ready to begin their flowering cycle again, within 45-60 days.
How Long Do Willow Trees Live
As is true with all tree species, the faster their growth rate, the shorter their life span. Compared to other tree types, Willows have a relatively fast growth rate and thus, a relatively short life span of 20-30 years.
Willow trees tend to start showing their age at around 20 years. Yet, there’s hope. Willow trees have been known, on occasion, to live 50 years, under optimal conditions.
Despite their “short” life, 20-30 years is still plenty of time for you to plant, grow and enjoy whichever willow variety strikes your fancy.
How To Plant A Willow
The first consideration in successful Willow tree planting is location, location, location. The vast size of Willow trees, their extensive root systems, and their need for wet soil, dictate that they should be planted no closer than 50ft from your home or other structure. Smaller willow shrubs can be planted virtually anywhere.
That location should also have at least 6 hours of full sun. Most cultivars are tolerant of different soil types. But, they must be well-draining.
Saplings will establish better when planted in early autumn and your planting hole should be twice as wide and deep as the tree’s root ball. Water these 2-3 times, per week, for the first month to facilitate healthy root establishment. Then, water normally.