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pruning willow, and the best salix varieties

Salix chaenomeloides 'Mt. Aso' flowering‘IT’S ENDLESS,” plantsman Michael Dodge of Vermont Willow Nursery was saying over the phone, alluding to the possibilities of the genus Salix—the willows to which he has been devoting the recent chapter of his impressive horticultural career.  We narrowed it down to some best-of willow selections from about 200 in his collection—best willows for outsmarting deer; winter interest; abundant flowers and even best for making honey if you’re a beekeeper—and I also got a brutal tutorial on willow pruning (also known as coppicing) to share with you.

Salix chaenomeloides

best of the salix: michael dodge’s picks

  • Best cut flowers:  Pink ‘Mt. Aso’ has “such a dense stem of flowers,” says Michael—some have 30 catkins along a space of 2 feet of stem. (I love the crazy-looking male flowers in the photo up top, not just the pink stage.) ‘Mt. Aso’ is a selection of the Asian species Salix chaenolmeloides, the giant pussy willow (photo just above), “which itself is just unbelieveable,” he adds, “and also has a lot of flowers–plus this species did well despite our dry year last year.” These start blooming in February, even in Michael’s northern Vermont location.
  • Best for winter interest: For offseason color, you can’t beat the red of ‘Britzensis,’ he recommends (the twigs are even red in summer, photo below). Unfortunately, it’s mixed up in the nursery trade with the warm gold-stemmed variety ‘Chermesina’—another beauty, but not fiery red.
  • Best deer-resistant willows, for fencing and hedging (a.k.a. fedges) or otherwise: “This is important to tell gardeners about,” says Michael. “The purpurea willows are deer-resistant. So for a fedge or fence it’s really great–and even gracilis or nana makes a dense bush, 4 by 4 feet, that they won’t jump over.”
  • Great foliage (and gold fall color):Salix acutifolia ‘Blue Streak’ is just so handsome,” says Michael about a variety that’s too often overlooked. “It flowers quite freely, and has long, droopy foliage an inch wide, and 6 inches long that turns yellow in fall.” [Note from Margaret: I love the long, narrow, silvery-blue foliage of the rosemary willow, Salix elaeagnos, which also goes gold in fall.]
  • Best for bees to make honey from: Vermont Willow Nursery has a whole list of the willows best-suited to the task.

Salix 'Britzensis' from Vermont Willow Nursery

how to prune willows

I WAS SOUNDING too tentative about the rejuvenation pruning—called coppicing—that I was about to do, and Michael Dodge could hear it in my voice. “Cut them down to the ground,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. “Really, really hard—don’t leave a foot of stem, like you often read about, but just an inch. I learned that in England—that you want just three or four stems to replace the one you’ve coppiced, and if you cut too high, it promotes a lot of messy growth.” So what do you think, gardeners? Are we feeling brave?

ordering and planting willows

Willow cuttings ready to ship at Vermont Willow

VERMONT WILLOW NURSERY in its third year, sells cuttings of willows from a preposterous number of varieties. The hardest part with this ultra-easy plants: figuring out which one to buy. (Hopefully Michael’s recommendations above are a help.)

The nursery sells 8-10 inch dormant, unrooted cuttings in bundles of five; you simply insert most of the twig when it arrives in the ground (like all but the top couple of inches).

They also sell long rods (again, unrooted cuttings) for making living fences, domes and tunnels in either 7- or 9-foot lengths (depending whether you’ll be shipping Fedex or UPS, respectively). Those get inserted a foot into the ground upon arrival, spaced a couple of feet apart.

Last year I ordered two bundles of shorter cuttings, stuck them in a corner of one raised bed in my vegetable garden, and now I have 10 rooted young shrubs ready to transplant into their permanent positions. Easy! How to order. (Cuttings and ‘Britzensis’ willow photos courtesy of Vermont Willow.)

  1. Angela says:

    I have a 20-25′ pussy willow tree. The base of the trunk is 10-12″ diameter. Can I prune to ground level and have multiple stems?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Angela. I wouldn’t stool or coppice it as you are suggesting till late winter/earliest spring, just before or as growth begins again. With a big old plant like that there is always the risk that it will not respond well, but with willows I almost never seem them fail to return with new shoots from the ground. If it does come back with lots of suckering-looking shoots, you will eventually want to decide which ones to favor.

  2. Frances Roth says:

    Hi Margaret, I have a beautiful Japanese variegated willow that has way outgrown the space where it is planted. Can I coppice this type of willow?

  3. Jacki says:

    I worked for Jim Brockmeyer (the Grass Guy) of Bluestem Nursery (now closed) in British Columbia for two seasons. My job was to crawl around among the willows and cut them for sale. They grow back with a vengeance. Jim used to say, they’re the only plant that grows on just sunshine and water.

    When I moved to my property here in Grand Forks, there were lots of dead willows, completely dry and perfect to use for cooking hotdogs for a ‘shore lunch’. After we cut them off at the ground, they re-sprouted from the roots, years after they had been declared dead! So don’t give up on them!

    1. margaret says:

      Lucky you — I loved that nursery’s website information. A great source. I love your resurrection tale. Thanks for saying hello.

  4. Kathy Menold says:

    Margaret, I am looking to buy a fantail willow to grow here in North Carolina and cannot find a source. Had a beautiful one for years in Virginia but lost the transplant I put along our stream. Any ideas from you or your readers? Thanks, Kathy

    1. margaret says:

      These being described are mostly shrubby plants, not giants creatures like the “weeping willow tree” that we are familiar with, so the distance from a path or building will be according to the mature width of the one you choose and how you plant to manage it with pruning (how big you will let it get). I don’t plant most anything right up against the house — not for worry about pipes but just impossible because it makes it to paint, keep siding clean and dry, blocks windows, etc. So if a shrub will be 8 feet wide at the base, say, when grown up, then I’d plant it half of that plus a couple or few extra feet from the house at the closest. Does that make sense?

  5. Kathy Oburg says:

    Hi Margaret,
    Took a friend to your program at Frelinghausen Arboretum in Morristown, NJ yesterday and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Looking forward to reading your new book too.

    I’ve had a weeping pussy willow for many years. It bloomed slightly one year a long while ago but haven’t had any blooms since. Each Spring I keep hoping. It’s a totally different shape from most pussy willows I’ve seen. It has a main trunk and the branches grow from it somewhat horizontally. It’s about 4′ tall. Do you know of any way I can promote blooming?

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t know what kind of willow a “weeping pussy willow” is and wonder also if it is grafted or growing on its own roots…do you know either thing? Usually lack of sun limits bloom as you know, or too much fertilizer can throw plants off…but I don’t suspect you have it in the dark and are feeding it bags of 10-10-10. :)

  6. Kristi L Marshall says:

    Can you or Michael suggest the tallest growing native variety for southcoast of MA…this is for screening purposes. Thank you, Kristi

  7. Daniel Greenfield says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I want to cut my pussy willows for drying but some of the catkins are already showing a little pollen. I’m I too late? How will they dry if there is a little pollen showing? Will they still look nice?
    Thanks,
    Daniel

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Daniel. I always see the recommendation to cut early when they look the way you want them to keep looking (silvery and fuzzy but still pretty tight), not late as you describe, and to put stems in a dry vase if you don’t want them to open up any further, to just stay where they were at development-wise when cut. If you cut them early then out them in water they will keep opening and get to where yours are now, I believe.

  8. Jim says:

    I have a Salix purpurea ‘Pendula’ I purchased mail order two summers ago. It was just a twig when it arrived. I half expected it to die but to my delight the next summer (last summer) it was thriving although still just a few short branches. It is supposed to grow to a maximum of 10′ by 10′ so last year I decided to not prune it and let it grow. Today although dormant (I’m in Colorado) it is even bigger but still small, maybe 4-5′ in diameter but only about 1′ high. I’m wondering if I should forego pruning it again and continue to let it grow. And if/when I do prune it what I can do to encourage more vertical growth?

  9. Dustin saito says:

    Hi Margaret,

    I live in Hawaii on Oahu and I am interested in growing a living fence with willows! What type of willow would be the best in Hawaii’s warm climate and do you know if they can be shipped to Hawaii from the mainland? Mahalo!!

    -Dustin

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