Willow trees are a popular choice for people wanting to introduce structure to an outdoor space. While large specimens bring height and drama to a garden, smaller willow trees have a shrub like growth habit, making them ideal for borders, soft privacy or even containers.
Our list of 10 common willow trees is designed to highlight some of the most commonly grown species as well as throwing light on some of the more underappreciated types of willow trees.
Elegant and attractive, these specimens provide interest from the start of spring well into the winter months.
What are Willow Trees?
Native to cool, damp regions across the northern Hemisphere, there are currently over 400 recognized species of willow trees. Belonging to the Salix genus, the taller, broad-leaved varieties are sometimes known as Swallows. Meanwhile the shrub-like, smaller varieties which often have narrow leaves, can sometimes be referred to as Osiers.
Salix plants are dioecious. This means that male and female flowers, known as catkins, form on separate plants.
Catkins often appear in late winter or early spring, depending on where they are growing. Typically the catkins appear before, or alongside the foliage. While the flowers may fade by midsummer, the plant’s foliage can last well into the fall. Providing further interest, some varieties are grown for their purple branches. These continue to add color to the garden throughout the winter months.
Most varieties of willow trees thrive in wet, moist soil. In the wild the plants commonly grow close to ponds, streams or rivers. Typically a cool weather loving specimen, with a little extra care willow trees can also be grown in warmer climates.
As well as providing ornamental interest, willow trees also have a myriad of uses. A good choice to prevent soil erosion, the flowers can be an important source of food for pollinators in early spring. The wood of some varieties is also useful for weaving into baskets, fencing, fish traps and numerous other items. Willow trees can also be used medicinally, helping to treat severe cases of acne or soothing back pain.
Specimens belonging to the Salix genus provide soft structure and act as a food source for many birds and pollinators.
1 Weeping Willow Trees
One of the most elegant specimens, weeping willow trees (Salix Babylonica), also known as the Babylon tree, originates in Asia.
Weeping willow trees are one of the earliest plants to start growing each year. In late winter or early spring, bright yellow flowers, known as catkins emerge. During the spring and summer months elegant, drooping branches, which are covered with rich, elongated green leaves, cascade down towards the ground, creating a dramatic spectacle. As the summer ends and fall begins, the foliage can turn an eye-catching shade of yellow, adding interest to the sometimes drab fall garden.
With a lifespan of about 30 to 50 years these hardy specimens are a great landscaping choice. Suitable for a range of planting schemes, in the wild these specimens like to grow close to streams or water sources. For more on these elegant specimens, including how to plant them, take a look at our in depth guide.
Salix Babylonica are elegant and graceful specimens.
2 Salix Alba
Popular for their white almost silver foliage, Salix Alba or white willow trees are another graceful addition to the garden. Native to parts of Europe, northern Africa and Asia these fast growing specimens, the tallest varieties can reach over 70 ft, have been cultivated in the United States since the 18th century.
Not only is Salix Alba one of the earliest trees to start producing leaves, the foliage, which provides much of the interest, lasts on the plants well into fall. This provides long lasting interest making the Salix Alba a good choice if you want to add color to a fall garden. Often the white foliage remains on the tree long after all the other specimens in your garden have dropped their leaves for the winter.
Further adding to the interest is the tree’s distinct catkins, which ripen into seeds in June, and the furrowed bark. Both of these elements help to bring texture as well as color to the garden.
Like many other varieties on our list, Salix Alba thrives if planted in boggy conditions or near to water sources such as ponds.
The distinctive catkins of the Salix Alba.
3 Pussy Willow
Pussy or goat willow trees are native to Europe and the UK. In the late winter or early spring furry, grey catkins emerge, adding color to otherwise bare gardens. These are soon followed by the emergence of white-yellow flowers and broad oval shaped leaves. Interestingly, while the top side of the leaves are smooth, the underside is covered in fine, grey hairs. Following pollination the female catkins develop into wooly seeds.
One of the easiest specimens to grow, once established they are pleasingly low maintenance. Like other members of the Salix genus, the young soft bark is easily damaged. If you want to protect the trunk, a Tree Trunk Protector is easy to install. As long as you plant your specimen in a favorable position, care is surprisingly minimal. If you want more information on siting and caring for these elegant specimens, this guide provides you with all the information that you need.
These specimens are a great ornamental choice for natural privacy, planting in woodland, hedgerows or, like many other willow trees, near water features.
The distinctive pussy willow catkins.
4 Dappled Willow Trees
One of the smallest inclusions on our list, the dappled variety (Salix Integra) is a striking specimen. Commonly cultivated as a shrub. These specimens are popular for their mottled foliage.
In early spring pink buds emerge. These open to reveal pale pink foliage-like flowers. As the plant develops the leaves take on a mottled appearance, developing green and white hues before finally turning yellow. Meanwhile, the branches turn a shade of deep red. Like other willow trees, this change adds color to the fall and winter garden.
A showy shrub, these compact plants are ideal for container gardens. Once established they are a low maintenance, colorful addition to the garden. Regular watering, particularly during dry spells, helps to keep these specimens at their best. Salix Integra is also one of the easiest Salix trees to propagate from cuttings.
5 Salix Arctica
Salix Arctica or arctic willow trees are another small, compact cultivar. A member of the Salicaceae plant family, this particular specimen has a creeping, low growth habit.
Incredibly hardy Salix Arctica survives in the subarctic and arctic regions. Here the plant’s bark and twigs provide a reliable source of food to various arctic animals such as caribou, lemmings and muskoxen. Often found growing in the North American tundra, Arctic specimens are also pleasingly showy. Their lance-shaped leaves, typically dappled in lightly purple hues, provide color in otherwise barren regions.
Rarely exceeding 5 inches in height these resilient plants come in a range of shapes, but most develop long, trailing branches. These set root wherever they touch the surface, allowing the plants to spread and carpet an area. Salix Arctica’s oval foliage, which typically has a pointed tip, is dark green on the top and lighter underneath. The flowers add further interest, being upright scaly spikes in shades of pink or dark brown.
The low growing, hardy Salix Arctica.
6 Salix Exigua
Native to North America Salix Exigua, also known as the coyote or sandbar willow commonly grows as a shrub. Happiest in a sunny, damp position, Salix Exigua one of the most ornamentally attractive cultivated willow trees.
A tall specimen, reaching up to 16 ft in ideal conditions, the plants are easily identified by their straight, slender branches and green foliage. Pleasingly frost tolerant, the foliage is an eye-catching silver color when young. As the leaves age they develop a gray-green color. The gray-green branches also add color and interest to a space. Like other members of the Salix genus, catkins emerge in the spring. Easy to identify, the coyote cultivar produces long lemon colored catkins. These typically develop alongside the foliage.
Native Americans used Salix Exigua to make ropes, fish traps, baskets, bows and arrows.
Yellow catkins are a popular draw for pollinators.
7 Salix Amygdaloides
Salix Amygdaloides or the peach leaf is easily identified by its shiny yellow twigs. Upon close inspection you will notice that the long wide foliage has a silver underside. Because of this,in light breezes the foliage appears to glimmer.
The foliage is also thought to resemble the leaves of the peach tree, hence the name. In the spring loose, open yellow catkin flowers emerge. As these ripen, seeds are released.
Native to the United States and areas of southern Canada, this specimen, like many other members of the Salix genus, these specimens do best when planted close to damp soil or streams and ponds. In ideal conditions the plants can reach 40 ft.
Not as long lasting as other members of the salix family, peach leaf specimens are a great choice to provide ornamental interest to an open space. The plants can also be used to control soil erosion.
Different varieties produce distinctive foliage, enabling you to tell the various species apart.
8 Salix Triandra
Native to Europe and parts of Asia, Salix Triandra, also known as the almond willow, is a multi-stemmed, deciduous small tree which can also be grown as a shrub.
Salix Triandra’s broad lance-like foliage is dark green in color, with a lighter underside. In early spring catkins emerge alongside the new foliage. Like other varieties, such as Salix Babylonica, this cultivar is dioecious. This means that male and female catkins emerge on separate plants. Typically male catkins are longer than the female catkins and have 3 stamens.
As the smooth grey-brown bark ages it becomes scaly. On older stems and branches large scales may fall away, or exfoliate, to reveal orange brown patches.
A good source of pollen for honey bees, the shoots can also be used to make baskets. Interestingly the inner bark is edible. It is best dried and ground into a powder which can later be incorporated with cereal flour to bake bread.
Catkins are a valuable source of pollen.
9 Dwarf Willow Trees
Common in many parts of the North Atlantic and eastern regions of Canada, this low growing shrub barely exceeds 5 inches in height. One of the shortest recorded woody plants, dwarf willow (Salix Herbacea) is almost as resilient as Salix Arctica specimens. Happiest in cold climates these plants can also be found on bare and rocky or mountainous ground. In appearance they are similar to the equally low growing bearberry.
Like other members of the Salix genus and the bay laurel plant, the dwarf variety is dioecious, meaning that the male and female flowers emerge on separate plants. While male catkins are red, the female of the species produces bright yellow catkins. This causes many people to mistakenly assume that they are two separate plants.
Red catkins are usually male, while female catkins are yellow.
10 Purple Osier
The purple osier (Salix Purpurea) is, as the name suggests, a tall, purple branching variety. These elegant willow trees can also be cultivated as large bushy shrubs.
The young purple shoots of the purple osier provide ornamental interest in the winter months, or can be cut and brought inside for use in a cut flower display. One of the taller varieties, you may need to support the plants when young with a Dewitt Tree Stake Planting Kit, to ensure upright growth.
Purple osier catkins are less showy than other varieties. Male catkins can be red-purple and covered with smooth hair. Each male catkin has a round floret with a central stalk. These flowers contain anthers that are initially purple before developing into a yellow shade. Female catkins tend to be yellow-green in color when young and are made up of numerous stalks and florets.
The catkins of the purple osier tend to emerge at the same time as the foliage. This means that they can sometimes be hidden by the leaves. For many growers this doesn’t matter because it is the bark that provides the most interest.
Coppice the plants regularly to encourage a bright, colorful display. This also helps to curtail the growth and spread of the plant.
As you can see from our list, willow trees provide lots of long lasting color, structure and interest. From late winter or early spring when the catkins first emerge to late fall, some such as the purple osier also add color, thanks to their bright branches during the winter months.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.