The bones of a garden become most apparent in the bleak days of winter. Brown and gray branching framework of shrubs and trees take on a new, contrasting appearance against the clean snow covered landscape. It’s here that an innocent walk in the garden can transform itself into a quest for proof that the lush green leaves will return once more, just like they have for ages without my help.
I get a feeling of joy when I see those flat, contorted, fanned-out sculptures that are produced by one of the most beautiful trees in our gardens; Salix sachalinensis Japanese fantail willow. I received a cutting of this unique willow in 1995 and have propagated many from that first tree. It came with a story about the branch fasciation having been caused by mutation due to the effects of the A-bomb at Hiroshima. I can’t seem to either confirm or disprove so I’m holding on to that lore.
Upon closer inspection of that reddish brown twisty branch, I’m pleased to see a covering of tiny brown buds filled with the future promise of those tell-tale gray silky catkins that willows are easily identified by. Those little brown bumps afford me hope and confirm my knowledge that the lushness that I desire will be retuning soon.
I can’t imagine not having this living sculpture and life-sustaining tree in my garden. In early spring, about the time that the forsythia shrubs bloom, the silky gray catkins burst from the brown buds along the flattened, contorted stems. (The next few photos were taken last year with an older camera, I apologize for the poor quality.)
Later those catkins enlarge and elongate then begin to “bloom”.
When there is a snow covering and food is scarce, rabbits are attracted to the soft tasty lower branches.
It’s not a concern for us because we find that willows have an amazing ability to quickly bounce back. Last fall, some of our younger willows were used for “buck rubs” and branches that have been mangled in the process rejuvenated quickly after an early spring pruning. Actually, willows will benefit from frequent pruning, it will also help to keep them at a good height to be able to reach those gorgeous gnarly branches for floral arrangements.
It’s important for us to plant with wildlife in mind, as we would not be able to afford to fence our entire property, nor would we want to. It just makes more sense to choose plants that can adapt to a deer herd passing through or a population explosion of rabbits as we seem to have this year. The fast growing willow fills the need for a dependable shrub/tree that can stand up to our wildlife.
In addition to the fantail willow, we have three other cultivars here at Crabtree Gardens. One of them; Salix nigra black willow which as it’s name suggests produces black catkins. This particular specimen is still young and was given to us by a dear friend because her garden didn’t have the proper space it required. She gave it to us with the understanding that she would be able to pick as many branches as she needed for her designs. It was planted in November of 2012. I can hardly wait to see this in another year or so.
Another one is the Japanese variegated willow Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki’ which has a unique leaf color in spring as emerging leaves turn pink, white and green eventually turning to green and white in summer.
In fall and winter, the new growth of the Japanese variegated willow remains a burgundy red color.
And last but not least we have the native North American willow salix discolor “Pussy Willow” as it is most commonly known which produces a beautiful gray-green elongated leaf. Its plump silky catkins are synonymous with spring bouquets.
Willows are also beneficial to butterflies and their larvae, and the bark is used for many herbal remedies. Maybe that’s why the rabbits enjoy those branches. A word to the wise is don’t plant any willow near septic lines as their thirsty roots will infiltrate and destroy the system.