Salix for winter stem interest

 The genus Salix contains over 430 different species with numerous additional cultivars, being a large varying genus of trees and shrub. In recent years this genus has had a bit of a renaissance with cultivars being grown for biomass fuel and willow structures being utilised in many school grounds proving how adaptable this genus is.

Some of the cultivars listed below can also be used for basket work. However continuing on from last month’s article, the ones I will concentrate on this month are the ones we could use for stem colour and many can be used in conjunction with Cornus and Ilex to provide interest and cheer during the dark winter months.

Cultivation – The majority of willows dislike to be dry at the root which is not a bad thing in our Scottish climate most are very hardy, many an old gardener would describe them as being as tough as old boots so cultivation in most situations in the Lothians should not be a problem.

Pruning for stem colour is the same as for Cornus as the intensity of colour is produced on new growth. To ensure good stem colour it is essential that plants are pruned back to encourage the new growth, this also has the advantage of keeping plants to a more manageable size. Plants should be pruned back to within 2-3” of ground level in March just before any new growth starts. If plants produce vigorous growth this should be done every year but if you live in a dry area in the Lothians or have a less vigorous cultivar or very poor soil, then you may reduce this to every two or even three years. Some of the cultivars listed below have the potential to make much larger plants if not pruned regularly.

Propagation – Salix are easily propagated by hardwood cuttings. During the dormant period select vigorous healthy shoots that have grown in the current year. Select material the width of a pencil and remove the soft tip growth then cut into sections 15-30cm long, cutting cleanly above the bud at the top with a sloping cut to shed water and as a reminder of which end is the top, then cut straight across the base of the cutting just below a bud. For willow structures such as the arch above, much longer stems can be used and will still root. Insert the cuttings carefully into soil ensuring that two thirds of the cutting is below the surface and by the autumn these will have rooted

My top six selections for winter stem interest:-

Salix alba var. ‘Vitellina’ – (Golden willow) An eye-catching fast growing cultivar with brilliant yellow stems.

Salix alba var. ‘Britzensis’ – (Orange willow) A fast growing cultivar with superb orange almost scarlet stems.

Salix fargesii – Not one to be pruned often, a distinctive and eye-catching glossy green stem, complimented with large red buds during the winter that provide attractive catkins and eye-catching large leaves. It likes a more sheltered position.

Salix babylonica ‘Tortuosa’ – (Dragons Claw willow) – Unusual twisted and contorted stems, highly desired by floral arrangers.

Salix udensis ‘Sekka’ – (Dragon willow) A popular cultivar with flower arrangers for its flat stems caused by an unusual plant condition called fasciation which seem more common produced when plants are pruned hard back. 

Salix sepulcralis ‘Erythroflexuosa’ – Very attractive twisted orange yellow shoots of lax habit.

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