It is not unusual to find articles in gardening magazines showing the very colourful stems of willow in the wintertime and most often the featured willows are varieties or hybrids of “white willow”, Salix alba.
Here are a few pointers that are often overlooked.
First of all it is ONLY the growth from the previous growing season that has colour. If you leave your willow shrub unpruned, you will end up with a large shrub with a few small, colourful tips during winter. Therefore – to really get a beautiful colour display you should coppice (cut down to the ground) the plants late winter/early spring as they will grow long shoots during one growing season and they will all have coloured bark. To make a real statement you could plant several plants of the same variety close together (about 30 cm/1foot apart). If you have a small garden and are worried that planting several willows will be too much for your other plants, you can repeat the coppicing (cutting down to the ground) in early summer. Supposedly (and I say that because I don’t have any personal experience/knowledge of this, but have read about it) the willow will not develop a large root if it has to use energy on new growth once or even twice annually.
In my opinion it is not only for winter colour that you plant willow in the garden. Many of the willows have very beautiful foliage, form and colour throughout the year. To illustrate this I have found a few photos:
I will start with Salix x ‘Flame’ as that one is often mentioned as a candidate for winter colour.By the time the leaves drop off, the bark has developed some colour that will intensify as the weather gets colder.
Salix x ‘Flame’ has beautifully coloured leaves in spring and early summer and the stem colours will vary from a light greenish/yellow/orange to a darker reddish brown. The two photos marked July 2012 are of the same plant, but photographed from the North and South sides of the plant. The more sun that the plant gets the darker the colour during the summer and these stems are darker on one side than on the other.
Another willow that has been planted in a lot of gardens during the last few years is the dabbled willow, Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’. A large shrub with pink shoots can look very beautiful, but as you can see on the following photo this willow can also be planted in your mixed bed, coppiced annually and it just looks lovely.
The variegated leaves are beautiful and the tip of the branches continue to be of an almost coppery colour during the summer. After the leaves have dropped the stems on this willow is a paler reddish brown.
One of my favourite willows (I have quite a few) is Salix koriyanagi ‘Rubykins’. It grows tall and slender one year rods when coppiced at the end of winter.
The very first leaves in spring are an incredible coral/peachy colour. Later the leaves are darker green, but the tips of the branches remain very colourful as you can see on the photo. Maybe that explains the name ‘Rubykins’? The last two photos show the light green colour of the stem. That is also the colour that the stems have during winter.
The last variety featured today is Salix x acutifolia
The winter colour of acutifolia is a very unusual and pretty dark purple that gets a bloom – a whitish waxy covering. If the plant is not coppiced the colour of the two year old branches will look almost as if they have been white washed. On the second photo you can see the red stems on the new growth and at the bottom of the photo you can see the two year old whitish stems (it is a braided Harlequin tree)