Long innings for a very special tree

By Richard Wright

Friday, January 24, 2014


Long innings for a very special tree

Salex caprea katzchen. Picture by 4028mdk09.

GARDENING THE 'thwack’ of leather on willow may not seem quite as enjoyable as it did in this painful wake of The Ashes whitewash.

But those memories will fade as the sap starts to rise in the tree that made the game of cricket possible, the flexible and shock-absorbent willow of which bats are, of course, fashioned.

These dour, dank days are a good time to ponder on plantings ahead and what may spring from them.

Sadly, my Kilmarnock willow tree will not be there to usher in springtime having suddenly succumbed. The cause of death has not been confirmed but I have my suspicions.

However, that willow should definitely be on the recommended list.

I bought my salix caprea pendula tree as a specimen roughly as tall as me at one of those plant auctions you don’t seem to see these days.

They were a great way of getting trees at a budget price, brought over bare-root from the mainland, in bulk, so they had to sell at almost any cost because of their limited shelf life.

Perhaps that’s why the auctions have died out.

My diminutive tree would only ever reach a maximum height of 10ft or so in 20 years so it would have been suited to a large patio container.

It was grafted on to dwarf rootstock so, provided it was not planted too deep, it would remain a runt all its life.

As it was, it was somewhat tucked away but, even so, brought joy in the spring.

It was a treat to look forward to, its heavily pendulous branches boasting a profusion of bright yellow furry catkins.

The mid-green leaves have soft grey undersides that look attractive throughout the year

This small garden tree is most at home next to water although it can be container grown if a watering regime is established, which probably — come to think of it — explains its demise in my garden.

One willow survivor, bought at the same time 25 years ago, is salix matsudana tortuosa, the name giving the clue this is the corkscrew willow, which is much more interesting when the leaves are off the trees.

Then there are the wonderful brightly coloured branches of salix alba britzensis, which also has the beauty of catkins.

These rightly fascinate children and the odd adult, producing a delicious, sweet honey fragrance that attracts bees and butterflies.

Willow thrives on being cut back.

If you doubt that, think of the ancient pollarded riverside specimens, which yielded 'whips’ and timber for generations.

Britenzis is an excellent choice for the harsh management approach because its young, fresh stems are the most colourful, as is salix alba x fragilis.

This salix is very vigorous and produces stems that vary in colour along their length — bright green at their base, orange in the middle and bright red at their tips.

Willows are tough. They thrive on wet, heavy soils and need little attention apart from pruning, but don’t put big weeping willow trees anywhere near a house because their deep roots will seek out drains and destroy them.

Willow has the added bonus that prunings can be used for indoor decoration, the corkscrew willow being especially suitable for that.

Prunings or whips from full-size willows can pushed into wet ground to grow into living sculptures or dried and woven because they remain flexible.

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