great shrub: salix elaeagnos, rosemary willow

IT CAME TO ME AS THE ROSEMARY WILLOW, Salix rosmarinifolia—meaning, the willow whose leaves look like rosemary’s (though on a much larger scale). And it came to me as a rooted cutting, maybe 8 inches high with a tiny branch or two developing off its pencil-sized main stem. My, how times–and both of us—have changed. Meet the renamed Salix elaeagnos, the most cooperative of shrubs, even where the ground is wet.

When I have garden tours, everyone asks what “that silvery-green tree by the vegetable garden” is—even many experts—because you don’t usually see it looking like a tree.

And even though I know somebody changed its name, at first I answer, “Salix rosmarinifolia…I mean…” then stop myself, and get it right.

The reason you won’t see this looking like a 15-foot-tall, 20-foot wide small tree is that as with other “shrubby” willows, regular rejuvenation pruning is usually practiced.

“Will get leggy unless cut back hard periodically” is the kind of advice you’ll find in reference books, and yes, of course, I should have cut it to the ground every so-many years—but I never had the heart, and just let it express its gnarly, rambunctious self. Time periodic renewal pruning for late winter.

Many references say the rosemary-leaf willow will reach only 10 feet tall, but they have never just let the thing grow, apparently.

Other attributes: beautiful, textural gray-blue foliage; yellow fall color; easy to grow (like all willows seem to be); tolerant even of wet spots; hardy to at least Zone 4, and up to 7ish. One downfall: Like many willows, the fallen foliage is messy, so don’t put it where bits of it (and spent catkins, too) will fall on precious little things beneath, especially if you plan to let it have its way and grow, grow, grow.

  1. Salix says:

    What a beautiful specimen!
    According to Christopher Newsholme in his book: Willows, the Genus Salix – Salix elaeagnos ‘Angustifolia’. S. lavandeulifolia Koch. var. rosmarinifolia Hot. not L. is a shrub up to 3 m (10 ft) that should not be confused with the upright dwarf species S. rosemarinifolia L.
    When you look S. elaeagnos up, it is very often called Rosemary Willow as its leaves are very rosemary like – just like the smaller S. rosemarinifolia.

  2. Diantha says:

    This one is definitely going on my wish list. What beautiful shape and texture! How many is “every so-many” years…2-4? Any idea how tall it would get in between cuttings? Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Mr Mews says:

    Willows are a delight especially for a compulsive pruner such as myself- I love shaping those fast growing beasts of the garden! If only boxwood would grow so fast-I’d have a garden full of sculpted animals.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Mr Mews. Fast they are indeed. I have some dwarf Arctic willows (Salix purpurea ‘Nana’) that I think I will rejuvenate this year and then keep to a smaller size. I may need some pointers… :)

  4. Michael Dodge says:

    Hello Margaret
    I’m growing ~250 different cultivars of willows in Northern Vermont and I hope to put up a website this winter to offer cuttings and rods of some of them. I built my first living willow structures last year and plan more this year. I saw some innovative willow plantings in England last year that I hope to try out. I agree that S. elaeagnos is one of the nicer shrub forms and is elegant in three seasons. It is relatively slow growing, so I’m guessing that annual coppicing would keep it really dwarf–kind of like a rosemary!
    Best regards, Michael

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Michael – how nice to see you again. I can’t wait to see your Salix offerings come available. I have also long loved S. purpurea ‘Nana’ for its similar (though much finer) texture. The oddest thing is that my S. chaenomeloides is trying to BLOOM. Now. Catkins starting to open in 9 degrees of early January. What a horrible confused garden I have — magnolias tried to flower in a hot spell in November. Spring figures to be a mess. Sigh.

  5. Kathy M says:

    Love the Salix family and have several but my Rosemary Willow was short lived. I had seen a beauty at Buffalo Springs Herb Farm and quickly found one to order but must have planted it in the wrong place. Do they need full sun? I also had a Black Pussy Willow which grew beautifully to a height of 7 ft and just as wide . Did well for about 5 yrs then shed every leaf and promptly died. So far my Japanese Fantail and Red Pussy Willows are doing well in the same area. I need some advice on what may have caused their demise and when and how to prune those I still have . I have a old fashioned Pussy Willow that the deer are doing quite a job on as a antler rubbing site but it seems to be surviving. It too has started to put out little catkins.Need to cut some and bring them in the house for a little taste of spring.Thanks for any advice you can give me on successfully growing Salix

  6. Stacy says:

    Beautiful pics. Would you happen to know how far away from septic and water pipes this needs to be planted?

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Stacy. I don’t know; the standard estimate is that the roots are as wide as the canopy, which in the case of my old shrub is probably 20 feet across, but they can be wider (or less wide) and i don’t know the depth.

  7. Melanie says:

    Hi Margaret,
    My rosemary willow was pulled way over on its side in the great October snowtorm and I thought would die but it has started leafing out and looks very much alive. However, it is leaning very heavily on a Kousa dogweed that it was already encroaching upon and half of one very large root is exposed. . I tried to shove it back upright manually but it won’t budge. It’s over 15 feet tall and 10 feet wide and that’s after cutting it back aggressively every year ! its quite close to the front porch and I had been thinking of moving it to a more open location before the storm My question is this: can i cut it way back to 1/3 its size and try to dig it out and transplant it? I know it has a “high” transplant-ability rating. It has such wonderful texture and color, I hate to lose it but it can’t stay where its is.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Melanie. The trick is that with such an old woody plant, the digging and ball-and-burlapping (to get it out of the ground with its rootball intact and surrounded by soil) might exceed your manual ability. Often I can get something big out of the ground…but in the process it essentially gets bare-rooted, which a big plant may (will?) freak out about. So you can try — and even giant trees are moved with equipment like tree spades (digging machines) or by people who know how to “cut a ball” into the soil and lift the thing and wrap it.

      I say all this not knowing how big the root system is. Maybe it’s doable…and there is only one way to find out! Can’t make it worse since in the situation it’s in now, it’s a goner and so perhaps is the Kousa…

  8. mari says:

    I love your newsletter. Had to join the discussion about Salix. About 10 years ago we moved to a new home with alot of gardening work ahead. At the bottom of the yard was a long muddyish trench in part shade, maybe 10 by 60 ft that I filled in somewhat with maybe 8 inches of good soil. Our son gave us a small salix (with another name, something Japanese) with pink, greenish, white leaves in the spring . Label said a shrub -3-4 feet high but it grew to about 15-20 feet. I keep it trimmed, on the bottom half, anyway, to control the unrulyness and allow sunlight in. Love it and fortunately we have the room for it. Last summer we had a drought with high humidity and it looked a tad sick. Now I’m wondering was this “sickness” the result of the drought only or is this salix reaching the end of its natural life span ?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Mari. I bet you have Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki,’ a lovely thing. That link will tell you more about it. Sometimes with willows and dogwoods (colorful-twig kinds, I mean, of the latter) they do get various things (cankers, other issues) so every few years I “stool” or coppice them, cutting them back really hard to try to force lots of fresh growth. That would keep them to like 4 or 5 feet; unchecked as you note they will get bigger (like small trees in many cases). The thing it won’t like about your spot: if it gets too much shade. (The drought wouldn’t have been too great for it either, if it was really dry.) What about rejuvenating it late winter this year?

  9. Amy says:

    Having loved your blog photos of this fantastic plant, I jumped to take home beautiful Salix eleagnos when I saw it on a recent visit to Broken Arrow Nursery in CT. Now to place it… What can you tell me about moisture requirements? It would look fantastic in an area that, alas, could never be construed as “moist”… actually on the dry side. Some references mention “somewhat drought tolerant” but what I want to know is will perish in average–dry soil? I would coddle it through first year, with temporary soaker hose on timer, but after that would like it to leave it to its own devices… Any thoughts? Design-wise I’m picturing it with a Cotinus ‘Grace’… I’m excited about the foliage combination but almost “ashamed” to be trying to use them together with such different moisture preferences!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Amy. I have only grown it in my garden in a couple of places, though in one of those spots for like 20-plus years. My soil is neither moist nor dry, not clayey or sandy. So basically that “moist, well-drained” thing you read about that sounds contrary. :) So I don’t know what it will do in a dry spot. It strikes me as a VERY tough plant, and worth a try, but as you say in the first year(s) in the ground it will certainly want help from you on the water issue, at least.

  10. Marian Franklin says:

    Hi Margaret need some advice on my 4 year old Salix which is maybe 10-11 feet tall- it was beautiful last year but this year no foilage grow on the top 2/3 of my tree – I have left it to see if anything would happen but nothing – the trunk ans side shorts seem well and not dry so not dead – can I cut out these main branches and still save the tree – the other problem is its the start of summer here and not the right time to prune- Looking forward to some helpful advice Marian

    1. margaret says:

      Willows sometimes have a mind of their own (and also certain ones can be more susceptible than others to a few bacteria and fungal maladies). I have one that did what you are describing, and many others that have never missed a beat. Penn State and Texas A&M (as well as the Royal Hort Society in the UK) have descriptions of such issues as a start, but you probably need a proper diagnosis from your local Cooperative Extension office. I have usually cut them way back and hoped for the best — sounds like you might take out the dead now, then see what happens late winter next year and prune harder to reshape it as needed then if it’s alive/doing better.

  11. My neighbor has a salix eleagonos growing at the edge of our property. It is home to hundreds (thousands?) of beneficial insects for our wild birds. I hung a feeder up on the side of the garage, barely 25 feet from the willow and it took the chickadee family about a nano-second to set up housekeeping. They inhabit the house about 10 months of the year and raise numerous clutches throughout the spring and summer. The willow is their ‘go to’ source for nutritious food for their fledglings. We have observed upwards of 25 trips per hour between their house, the willow, and back again. Rinse and repeat from sun up till sun down.

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