What to plant if you’re thinking of putting a willow in your garden

Charles Quest-Ritson offers advice on this incredibly vibrant plant.

Maurice Mason was an impassioned plantsman who farmed 10,000 acres of rich fenland soil in Norfolk until his death in 1993. Its profits financed his annual trips to collect plants from tropical and subtropical climates all over the world and he accommodated his botanical loot in some 14 glasshouses surrounded by 15 acres of ornamental gardens.

Trees and shrubs were another of his passions – Harold Hillier used to send him a specimen of every new species that was raised in his Winchester nursery – but Maurice’s garden at Talbot Manor is the only place I’ve visited that had an area dedicated to willows.

Actually, that’s not completely true, because there used to be a National Collection of willows at Westonbirt, but that’s gone now, as have some of the glasshouses and much of the garden at Talbot Manor.

Maurice was one of those rumbustious extroverts before whom shyer mortals cringe. ‘Are you salicious?’ was his opening gambit as one drew close to his willow garden. The question was usually addressed to the prettiest girl in the party. When he accosted my wife with this enquiry, she replied that she most certainly was and added that she was magnifica, rather than fragilis.

The key to this exchange is the Latin name of willow: Salix. The species called Salix magnifica has the largest and handsomest leaves of all and S. fragilis is the useless ‘crack’ willow whose shattered trunks and broken branches fill our riverbanks and water meadows throughout the British Isles.

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‘I once cut down a plant of Salix purpurea and put the stems through a shredder, only to find that the shreddings themselves started to produce roots and leaves’

We still grow two willow species that came from Maurice. Best is grey-leaved Salix hookeriana, a medium-sized shrub that combines with everything – we have it as a background to the dark-purple rose Rhapsody in Blue.

The other is a curiosity: a plant for plantsmen called Salix exigua that has the unusual habit of suckering and is, therefore, used to consolidate embankments.

I’ve grown a lot of willows over the years, largely because they’re so easy to root. Cut them for the house and the stems are clothed in fine white roots by the time you throw them out. I once cut down a plant of Salix purpurea and put the stems through a shredder, only to find that the shreddings themselves started to produce roots and leaves.

Willows are tough, unfussy plants – most of the time, anyway. I gave up on Salix moupinensis because its handsome leaves were invariably crippled by spring frosts. Some are overrated – the prostrate form of the goat willow (S. caprea Kilmarnock) is deadly dull. Likewise, S. aegyptiaca, which has larger flowers than usual, but is not so different from any other pussy willow (although they come out in February) to be worth growing in any but the largest gardens.

There are some 400 Salix species and many selected forms of the more popular ones. I recommend the cultivars of Salix alba with coloured stems: Britzensis combines well with hard-pruned dogwoods, but you must cut back the stems to a stump in April, so it doesn’t become a tree. On the other hand, the best tree willow is the silver-grey form, S. alba var. sericea. I also pollard S. acutifolia Blue Streak, praised for the bloom on its winter stems, but it’s not as good as S. irrorata.

If you, too, feel salicious, you won’t lack for choice. Investigate the best forms of S. purpurea, a British native: Lambertiana and Nancy Saunders have glaucous leaves and crimson stems and make a fine, dense background for flowering shrubs. However, you should avoid the dwarf form Nana, so popular as landscaping alongside French motorways, as it always looks scruffy.

Equally useful, however, is S. rosmarinifolia, now naturalised in Britain, with very long, thin leaves, although it grows too tall for very small gardens. I love S. gracilistyla Melanostachys, whose catkins in March open pink and turn to black – a real charcoal-black, too.

I can also recommend S. eleagnos, S. lanata, S. x rubra Eugenei and S. phylicifolia. Then there’s grey-leaved S. Mark Postill, so good for small gardens and, at the other end of the scale, Bowles’s Hybrid, which grows so fast that its main use is for biomass.

If you absolutely must plant a weeping willow, have some fun and go for S. babylonica Crispa, with its curled-up leaves (very Chinese) or Tortuosa Aurea with its twisted leaves on orange stems.

In short, there’s no end of good salicious trees and shrubs. As Maurice Mason might have said, everybody needs a willow.

Charles Quest-Ritson wrote the RHS Encyclopedia of Roses