Embrace the weeping willow

The willow isn’t the only weeping tree you can plan – have you thought about a weeping ash, or birch, for instance?

Weeping trees are rather like the little girl with the little curl when they are good they are very, very good and when they are bad, they are horrid. At their best, they form graceful additions to the landscape and those varieties whose majesty and elegance grow with age can be planted with confidence.

Into the majestic category must come a tree that is often reviled, but which I love the weeping willow, Salix babylonica var. pekinensis Pendula. In just eight years, a specimen planted next to our wildlife pond has grown to a height of 25ft and spread 30ft and it’s not even growing in especially damp soil, which most willows adore.

Planted at 6ft tall, it took a couple of years to settle in and relied on a stake to keep it upright, but in year three, like some giant breaking its shackles, it took off and now drapes its branches around a Lutyens bench. To recline there and watch the moorhens scampering across the waterlily leaves is to be embraced by its cloak and overwhelmed by a feeling of oneness with nature.

But the weeping willow must only be planted where there is no danger of its roots entering and blocking drains or shifting foundations, for they will do both with consummate ease. In winter, the naked, golden stems sway in every passing breeze and crack like whips in a gale. But strong winds have their purpose; they’re very efficient at bringing down any dead wood usually smaller stems and branches that might otherwise have languished above.

The only downside to this tree (apart from its vigour when planted in the wrong place) is the fact that, in certain springs, it’s a martyr to a disease called anthracnose, which causes black discolouration on the leaves. There is nothing to be done. Put away the sprayer and be patient, for the tree will usually grow out of it as the season progresses, although fallen leaves in autumn are always best raked up and burned, rather than being composted and the disease given a chance to linger.

Of the cedars, the deodar, Cedrus deodara, is the one with descending ends to the branches and, of all the cedars, it is the one that achieves a handsome stature earliest, after only 10 years or so. However, for the cedar of Lebanon, Cedrus libani the finest of all the cedars one must wait perhaps three or four times as long. Brewer’s weeping spruce, Picea breweriana, is another of my favourites, with pendulous branches; Picea omorika also has an elegance in its low, sweeping stems.

There are weeping versions of many of our larger trees beech and ash among them but I would strongly advocate a trip to an arboretum or garden to see an established mature specimen before committing to any of them. Only then can you be reassured that the tree in question has the shape and elegance that appeals to you. Often it’s the smaller, slower-growing trees recommended for tiny gardens that are the least attractive in habit.

The Kilmarnock willow (Salix caprea Kilmarnock) makes a hump there is no other word for it that might draw a glance when the pussy-willow flowerbuds expand along its waterfall of stems, but it looks for all the world like a broom handle to which a few weeping willow branches have been strapped by a desperate florist. Age does it no favours, for it simply turns into a fat crinoline.

Young’s weeping birch (Betula pendula Youngii) is possessed of little more grace. It would be better to plant a Japanese maple where space is really limited or even straight Betula pendula, whose canopy is so delicate that it’s unlikely to block out the light. I’d rather do that and remove the tree altogether when it outgrew its situation than settle for the poisoned dwarfs.

Am I being harsh? No. To gaze upon a weeping tree that weeps gracefully, rather than simply sobbing its heart out uncontrollably, is to be lost in awe.

My Secret Garden, by Alan Titchmarsh, is published by BBC Books (£25)

This article was originally published in Country Life October 1, 2014

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