all warm and fuzzy about the world of willows

Salix chaenomeloides

IMARCHED UP THE HILL and stuck my face in a stand of twig willows and dogwoods the other day, starved for some color in this relentlessly mud-toned non-winter. The world looked really bright and shiny through their gold and red twigs, and then I remembered the giant pussy willows (Salix chaenomeloides, cut and stuck in a vase, above) down by the road and went to pay them a visit as well. Time to sound another cry in favor of these easiest of plants–and offer a new source of an incredible variety of willows, in particular.

The noted plantsman Michael Dodge (remember the yellow-fruited viburnum named for him?) is kicking off his second season of Vermont Willow Nursery, selling easy-to-root cuttings of Salix. There are 80-something species and varieties in his current availability list, with a footnote that there are more than 200 in his collection (though some in short supply)—in case the 80 didn’t satisfy. He keeps telling me this is his little retirement project, but it looks suspiciously more full-blown that that. Can a gardener every really control him or herself? (Besides via the website, you can reach him by email at vtwillownursery [at] me [dot] com.)

salix mt. asoDodge sells 8-to-10-inch dormant unrooted cuttings in bundles of five for $12.50 a bundle, shipped March into May (and again in fall for warmer zones). He also ships bundles of 6-foot cut rods for making “fedges” (fences crossed with hedges—get it?) and willow structures, and sells cut stems to florists. He reports that with Valentine’s Day approaching, the pink types of pussy willows are selling very well, like S. chaenomeloides ‘Mt. Aso’ (inset photo from the Vermont Willow Nursery website, left).

“There is nothing easier to propagate than most willows,” says Dodge. “This is because they contain a natural rooting hormone–in fact the first rooting hormones were developed from willows.”

So what’s his step-by-step–which those of us with willows can also use to make more to plant or share?

“I usually take cuttings about 10 inches long,” he says, “and a minimum of one-quarter inch thick (unless it is a slender variety), but they can be thicker than that–almost any thickness. I have rooted 14-foot-long cuttings in living willow structures!”

Stick your cuttings in the soil late winter, as soon as frost leaves the ground, to get the best results. Fall cuttings, taken as soon as the leaves drop, are about as successful, according to Dodge, who at his nursery covers the ground of the propagation bed with 6 mil black polyethylene to preserve moisture and block weeds. In a garden situation, cuttings can be stuck through any weed blocker with mulch over it, he says; Dodge uses a tire iron or a piece of half-inch rebar to poke the planting holes, making sure the thick plastic isn’t too tight against the stems, which could cause eventual girdling.

Plant the cuttings deep, he advises, so that just 1 to 2 inches remain above soil and plastic level. Watering may be needed if your soil tends to dry, but you don’t want to swamp the plants; the heavy plastic will usually do the moisture-mediating trick, and in his clay loam he says he doesn’t need to water them.

In the first year growth can reach an energetic 3 to 8 feet, depending on the variety, says Dodge (who notes that the Alpine types are harder to root than most others). A chart of which willows are best used for what usage is here (think living structures versus woven fencing and more) or just start at the Vermont Willow Nursery homepage.

(And P.S.–that’s Salix alba ‘Chermesina,’ the coral-bark willow, in the photo below with the red dogwood twigs of Cornus sericea ‘Cardinal’ from up on my hillside. My portrait of the giant pussy willow, Salix chaenomeloides, is here. My favorite Salix of all isn’t grow for its twigs or catkins but for its silvery-bue foliage. It’s the rosemary willow, Salix elaeagnos.)

twig willow and dogwood

  1. Johanna says:

    Margaret, what is the invasive quotient of this kind of willow? The water table where I live is quite high, and I have two old “creek willows” in my yard. One is huge, the other was modest. I tried to cut down the modest one before I understood about willows and about seven hundred sprouts came up within a thirty foot diameter of the trunk.

    I think pussy willows are lovely, but I wouldn’t want to invite another incident like when the willow army invaded my yard.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Johanna. I think the key here is to adopt a pruning strategy that works for your situation/site. Pollarding or stooling/coppicing. Here the species I grow do not run sideways as much as just get big if left unpruned. I have never encountered a THICKET of pussy willows though I have had various species for multiple years in the ground. [Update: Michael Dodge jumped in below with more info.]

  2. Mary Fizzell says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I am satisfying my color craving by revisiting your slideshows. Do you have a source you would share for your colorful wooden chairs? What a beautiful invitation to sit down and enjoy the view.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Mary. The chair pattern (which I adapted with heavier lumber, true “five-quarter” thickness) and a friend made for me in cedar came from Wave Hill at this link. You can build it as is, or tinker with angle of the chair back for comfort (we did a bit) and paint or stain or whatever.

  3. That’s a fantastic site. I’ve been wanting to plant willow varieties for a while, both for the beauty and for the natural rooting hormones. I especially have my eye on the “Hakuro Nishiki” “Dappled Willow”.

  4. Lene says:

    Great post.
    In response to Joahnna’s comment: It is a great misconception that willow is invasive – spreading by suckers. According to Christopher Newsholme’s book: Willows, The Genus Salix (which also Michael Dodge recommends) the only willows that have a suckering habit is a section called Longifoliae Pax.
    Most willows – depending of size and variety – are aggressive growers which is why they shouldn’t be planted just anywhere, especially if they are not regularly pruned, pollarded or coppiced.

  5. Bill says:

    I have a pussy willow near the house that I cut back each year almost to the ground. It will grow back 10-12 feet by the end of the summer. I need a better pruning strategy. I don’t know what pollarding or stooling/coppicing are . Could you please describe.

  6. Lewis E. Ward, Figure in the Wood says:

    Nice article and pleased to know of a nursery in the northeast.
    I love willows for quick color in areas that need it like new home sites. I planted several S. alba ‘Britzensis’ seven years ago to color up the yard. This past fall they were removed to make way for more shrub roses. They are more colorful if you cut them back to the ground in late winter. I planted them with red and yellow osier and the fine blue green foliage of the Salix purpurea var. gracilis ‘nana’. They can be dug out fairly easily when no longer needed.
    I also grew out a number of other willows to select for ornamental, screening, basketry and green woodworking purposes. The larger species (S. x dasyclados and S. ‘Aquatic Gigantea Korso’ for timber have proven to have the expected vigorous growth habit, are quite unruly and are decidedly not ornamental. I found that to obtain straight up rite poles I would need to stake them up. They were removed with a spade.
    A very upright and colorful variety is S. purpurea ‘Irrette’ which will make a fine fedge or screen. The foliage is just beautiful with it’s fine texture and healthy appearance. Cut back every year or two to control growth and to enhance the color you will be quite leased. I’ve found that under high deer pressure the purpurea species is quite resistant to deer browsing.
    There are several willows that work well in rock gardens sprawling over walls and rocks. I’ve found S. nakamurana var. yezoalpina catkins a delight to discover in late winter and the foliage is hairy and bright yellow in the fall.

  7. A friend gave me a bouquet with some very unusual pussy willows. I enjoyed them in a vase for a long time, then stuck them in the ground with no special treatment of any kind. Every one of them “took”. When rooting cuttings in a glass of water, adding a sprig of willow will speed along root formation. The colors on the ones you feature here are entrancing.

  8. betsy says:

    Since almost all of my gardening is now in pots, window boxes and some narrow borders You are my garden!! I am having success with shrubs and small trees and climbing vines in huge containers and wonder if pussy willows would work? I do so want the pink ones and if they would tolerate being in a group in our zone 7 area I want to try!

  9. Martin says:

    Great plant the willow.

    It’s dead right to say how easy willows are to propagate. I don’t know whether they are common in the US, but living willow screens and structures are gaining some popularity in the UK.

    The rods, as they are called, are placed in the desired shape and thanks to their magical rooting properties they will take and provide a leafy display. They are often used to create kids cubbies and wig-wams and the like. But given the speed of growth and the height they reach they’re great for quick screens.

    I think that Salix viminalis is commonly used.

  10. Michael Dodge says:

    INVASIVE WILLOWS: There are several species of willows that spread rapidly–mostly from the US! Especially Salix exigua–the Coyote Willow that develops huge thickets along river banks and other wet areas in the Southwest.. They’re very colorful in winter with red or orange stems. I brought some cuttings back from New Mexico last March and hope to try it out for stream-bank restoration. There are one or two Vermont natives that I wouldn’t want to plant in a border–they’d take over; I don’t grow any of these.
    BILL: what you are doing is coppicing! Cutting them down to the ground encourages these straight, vigorous shoots. Willow growers coppice most of their willows yearly to get these rods for use in living structures or basketry. It sounds like you don’t like this where it is. I suggest you take one or more of these rods before they leaf out and stick them in the ground where you would like them. Then dig out the willow where it is. I’ve rooted 14′ willow cuttings without a problem!
    MARTIN: Salix viminalis is a lousy grower for me–it gets aphids really badly that stunt the terminal growth; sawflies that cut the tops off there shoots and beetles that burrow down in to the growing point. I am going to get rid of several clones that I have this year and I know that Lene has done the same. I list several alternatives on my website.

  11. Jeannine says:

    Hi Margaret or Michael

    Do you have any idea how willows such as Mt. Aso might do near the ocean, as on Cape Cod? I wonder if the salt air would damage them? Margaret I love your blog and podcast!

    Thanks so much for any advice.

  12. Martin says:

    Thanks for that feedback Michael. I noticed that one of the growers in the UK mentioned how attractive viminalis is to aphids. I was impressed that they cheerfully added that it was okay though, because the aphids attracted the birds!

  13. Sarah says:

    Like Ricki, my pussy willows started out in a vase and simply insisted on growing an impressive set of roots. They’ve been in a pot in the backyard ever since (about a year, I think), and I’m grateful for the cautionary information on how vigorously they can take over. Pussy willows are lovely, but my favorite willows are the myriad native varieties that grow along rivers here in California. When a thicket is pruned back year after year it produces wonderfully straight and supple whips for weaving baskets. Oo-la-la!

  14. Marianne zimberg says:

    Hi Margaret
    I went to his website once and now it dies not come up. Any ideas where he went??
    It was lovely and I am ready to purchase.
    Thanks, Marianne

    1. Margaret says:

      Thanks, Marianne — I know a lot of people ordered last week when I posted the story, but you’re right … now his url is going to another page. I will email him and tell him he has technical problems. :) Thanks for alerting me so I can pass the word along.

  15. Nice to come across this post about willows. I also sell willow cuttings here in the US. We have a farm called Dunbar Gardens located in the Pacific Northwest. Our focus is more varieties that are useful for basketry and garden weaving, but many of them are ornamental as well. Not quite the selection of someone as dedicated as Mr. Dodge, but we are quite enthusiastic about willow as well.

  16. franky says:

    these willows are such a beautiful touch as a decoration in a home :) or for any decoration purposes…ive used them for weddings before too ! great post!

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