pruning willow, and the best salix varieties

Salix chaenomeloides 'Mt. Aso' flowering‘IT’S ENDLESS,” plantsman Michael Dodge (former owner of Vermont Willow Nursery) was saying over the phone a few years back. He was 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 the nursery’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, now under new ownership) 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 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.

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

  1. Salix says:

    Don’t be afraid of coppicing your willows. I grow willows for basketry and living willow structures. By cutting the willows down to the ground every year when dormant, you will get the long, straight rods without any side shoots that you want for weaving willow baskets – and besides that you will get a beautiful clean looking plant with lots of winter color as only the stems from the previous growing season show color.

  2. Deirdre in Seattle says:

    We have some good willow nurseries in our area. They cater to basketweavers mostly.
    I have a young hedge of the gold twigged S. alba vitellina. I picked up the twigs walking through a local park after a windy day. I wanted/needed a hedge. I had a variety of red and orange Acers and Cornus, and the price was right. It will screen the neighbors side yard when it gets some size on it. I intend to coppice it to keep them from turning into trees. They will make a beautiful golden haze during our gray winters.

  3. Jenny Stein says:

    I’ve just planted 10 each of willow and hazel – which I plan to coppice for garden structures. (Bare rooted). I don’t plan to begin cutting them back until next winter, but what I would like to do is to make the first cut at about 2.5′ off the ground, so that the stool is higher up to make future coppicing easier as I get old. I had imagined this would create a look like pollarded trees I’ve seen and in addition would mean that I could position the plants behind waist-high structures such as a compost bin and a hedge – the better to have the new growth in the sun and off and running sooner. Reading your admonition about getting right down to the ground, I still wonder if I can’t successfully coppice/pollard at thigh height, even if it means I will need to be more attentive to pruning new growth as it comes in. Why would a stool (the clumpy point from which all new growth emanates) be much different if it is on the ground than if it is in the air. And yes, I would think straightness would be prized. Garden is in Ireland which is both more temperate and has a shorter growing season. Any thoughts?

  4. Matt Mattus says:

    I am so inspired to try more willows! My friend and neighbor, plant breeder and explorer Darell Probst was once a willow collector, when I first met him 27 years ago – ugh, I am getting old! But I never really paid too much attention to the genus, but we do coppace some along our border for weaving branches. These you are showing are so impressive that I now have to explore some more!

  5. Judy venonsky says:

    Can you give us a little more detail on creating a 4 x 4 deer fence out of willow cuttings. It sounds very promising.

  6. I’m afraid rather than wanting to add willow, I have a bully in my yard that I would so love to remove. I don’t suppose you have any information about that? I tried one year, but only accomplished the coppicing you talk about — a gazillion little willows appeared in the grass and on my septic mound. (Very high water table here.)

  7. wrmoreau says:

    After years of battling an overgrown pussy willow I tried coppicing last year. I was still tentative in cutting back and left a foot of growth. This spring the catkins were outstanding. This year I have no fear cutting 1inch above the ground. Thanks for the info last year about pussy willows

  8. Englishwoman says:

    You have not mentioned any concern regarding invasive water-seeking root systems – I know this is a serious problem when Weeping Willows are planted in areas without sufficient water availability, with roots breaking through water pipes and house foundations. Is this only a problem with certain willow varieties, or perhaps only when they become full-scale trees? If I plant some of the gorgeous willows suggested in your article, and coppice them regularly as suggested, can I plant them wherever I wish without worrying about the eventual root systems? I have a half acre garden, intensively gardened, is there really room for some coppiced willows?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Englishwoman. I wouldn’t plant anything big and woody, willow or otherwise, over my septic area. I don’t think the shrub willows are going to break your house foundation down (but I would not plant any tree right beside the house, willow or not). I hate weeping willow trees because they are so messy and eventually get huge and then fall over in storms — not great garden material. These shese shrubby ones are much more garden-scale.

  9. Margit Van Schaick says:

    There’s a beautiful willow that floors pink, but the most wonderful thing about it is that it branches out fully beginning at ground level and continuing on up. This makes it especially useful as a hedge, a barrier against animals, as well as a great privacy fence. I’m not sure which cultivar it is, but a willow specialist would know, thanks, Margaret, for a very interesting post.

  10. Beth Urie says:

    What are the impacts of genus Salix’s’ characteristic of ‘shameless promiscuity’ (Michael Dodge re: Salix) on native willow habitat? Should cross-pollination occur, are there negative repercussions for native habitat? I grow non-native s. chaenomeloides
    and harvest annually while blooming which is so much earlier than the native willows that cross-pollination would be unlikely. For those willows planted for color/flower characteristics, the recommended coppicing would minimize any risks to native habitats. But what are the risks?

  11. Sharon says:

    should you coppice a “fedge” or once it is grown into the desired shape do you just prune the entire structure to keep it in that shape?

  12. Cheri says:

    Just got my order from Vermont Willow nursery. I got 8 different plants. I hope to make the fence out or ther purple willow! I love them so much they were a childhood favorite! My question… do i have to prune them to the ground? cant i just let them do what nature intended?

    Thanks Long time fan. Cheri

  13. We just planted our Salix Alba Centurea at the edge of our property on the sunny side of our forest line. We purchased it from “Forest Farm” in CA. abd had it shipped all the way out here to NC. This willow is now a part of my medicinal garden cosiring of over 40 varieties of medicinal plants. Some benign which you can pluck and eat right off the plant and some down right scary which are powerful but need lots of tesearch on cross referenced lab studies and preperation time to make into safe meds.

    Our willow should grow to around 60ft left uncopised in only 10 years time. This variety of willow is also known as the Asprine Tree. Because the lining of the bark is boiled with copper to make a decoction which is Asprine. No kidding. It’s been used for this purpose by the Greeks and Romans for several thousand years.
    Long before the German chemist Bayer “invented” Asprine for this tree.
    Your aspirin I white because of the white willow.

    Other stuff to know is that this type of willow was grown in Britton for hudreds of years to make the English Long Bow. It also turns out to be one I the best trees in exsistance which produces the loam ash that makes Gun Powder. This trait almost caused its extinction in Europe during the late 1700s because of Britons losing war with America during the revolution. Today the white willow is also used to make cricket bats and new legs for amputees. So the Salix Alba Centurea it truly “the warriors tree”.

    Pretty cool, yes!

  14. Marilyn says:

    Along the lines of Jenny Stein’s question, I have another reason to want to coppice a few feet up — I have a pussy willow planted in prime deer grazing territory, in a spot I can’t fence or put a wire cage. Until it got more than 5 feet tall, I had no catkins. If I cut it back to about 5 feet every year, will that be horribly ugly during the early winter when it is naked? Sort of like crepe myrtle-cide (ugh!) that is so often practiced here? I am in zone 7B, Raleigh, NC. I am still confused on when — do we coppice it after it has finished blooming for the year and before it leafs out? After it leafs out? Mine has been done blooming and all leafed out for about a month to 6 weeks now — am I too late for this year?

  15. Martha Perez says:

    Hi, I just bought a tall willow (7 meters) with almost no foliage and basically just the main long trunk. Could anyone give me good tips on how to prune it so it develops that lovely mane that old well tended-to willows have? Thanks in advance!

    1. Suzie Johns says:

      Hi Martha. I have the same problem – did you ever come up with a solution? Mine is a Salix alba Britzensis and is about 12 foot tall with a main trunk and little leaf.

  16. June says:

    Help me! I bought a Black Pussy Willow several years ago and it’s never bloomed. It did come as a stick and it does have leaves. Since it’s still winter here in WI, sigh, should I cut it down to the ground? Any other suggestions? Thanks!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, June. I would not start hard pruning (near the ground) until I had a well-established plant, unless it needs “corrective” pruning (because it is misshapen). You say it’s a stick — is there life all the way to the tip, or might it like a slight shortening down a few inches to just above some buds to see if you can force it to “break” (make side shoots)?

      1. June says:

        It bloomed! But only a few at the very tip of the plant. Is there something I can do to get more blooms next time? I have a picture that I could send too.

  17. Craig says:

    This sounds like a perfect solution to my back yard lack of privacy and winter interest. The staggered double row and coppicing each row every other year sounds like a winner. I may have to try out some cuttings this year. The varieties are quite numerous!

  18. gayle says:

    Hello – I have a pussy willow tree – that I planted 3 years ago – can I cut it down to the ground each year going forward? Will I then get the willow branches as described above?

    Thank you –

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Gayle. The idea is to cut it back to get it to “break” and force more stems to get going. I don’t know what yours looks like, so I cannot say where to cut. Stooling/coppicing (hard cutback) is usually done every few years to keep the plant in scale and good shape, or otherwise many of them grow tree-like, with all the pussy willow catkins way up in the air!

      1. gayle says:

        Yes – that is what mine looks like now – a tree – with all the catkins high up.

        Wonder what would happen if I just cut that back to the ground … perhaps shoots would start growing off the stump?

        Thank you for responding to my question – really appreciate it!!


  19. Jenn says:

    If willow seeks water so aggressively, would it be a good solution for a wet area of the yard? I have an area next to my fence that has standing water whenever we get heavy rain. I’m wondering if planting a willow hedge next to the wet area, along the fence line, would help this because the willow would suck up all the water? Or, would they just move out into the yard, covering the entire wet area?

  20. Julie Jagger says:

    I put a twig, from a flower arrangement , in my raised bed garden, up against a fence , last fall. It is July in northern ohio now and I have a9 ft tall, multi-stem,green something. Not sure of type but it has brown branches and green foliage. My question is when and how to move from my veg. Garden and when and how to prune? I hate to kill any living thing except weeds! I understand the moist they like and sun, but timing is everything! When, where, how?

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