Dappled willow changes with the seasons

Tapestry hedge with Inkberry Holly and Thread leaf Chamaecyparis

Dr. Bob Gilbert Columnist

Dr. Bob Gilbert

I think that at some time or other we all have had a need for a privacy hedge to block out an unpleasant view or a neighbor or to enclose a special space.  What comes to mind is how frequently Leyland cypress have been used for this purpose.   Fortunately, there are other evergreens that work just as well that are not so susceptible to diseases.  Hollies, Western Cedars, Cryptomeria and even evergreen Magnolias

curly willow leaves

come to mind.  For increased interest these hedges can be made more dramatic by including contrasting trees or shrubs.  This approach is sometimes called a tapestry hedge.  For example, along our private road we planted evergreen hollies Ilex glabra or Inkberry.   Interspersed between these shrubs we planted Chamaecyparis (Japanese Falsecypress) pisifera ‘filifera Aurea’ Golden Thread leaf Chamaecyparis.  In my opinion the use of this plant has broken up an almost monotonous hedge of green. I have to admit the Chamaecyparis will require some selective pruning once a year as it will grow too tall and wide.  I think breaking up a long border of green with yellow is a pleasing choice.  Other yellow evergreens such as Chamaecyparis “crippsii” grow tall and could be used in a taller privacy hedge.  It would look great inter-planted with Western cedars.  

dappled willow leaves-2

Other colored plant choices have different shades of green, red or even blue. Unfortunately, there are not many shrubs or trees that have white or pink dappled leaves but there is an exception – Dappled Willow or Salix integra. I am very fond of this shrub because its appearance changes with the seasons. It starts with pink leaf buds that open with variegated shades of pink, creamy white and green leaves. As the season progresses the leaves darken some.  Its new stems are coral red.  By removing the old stems that have turned brown you can always have red stem color. Pruning promotes new growth. Dappled Willow comes from Japan and has the additional common name of “Hakuro-Nishiki’which translates to spring child-brocade.  This plant can be grown as a shrub or a single trunked tree often called a standard. Lateral stem shoots have to be removed to maintain a single trunk. To include it in a tapestry hedge you have to keep it pruned back to the size you want which will also keep the foliage compact.  This shrub grows rapidly and best of all it is locally available.  Untouched it will grow up to 10 feet.  Its only fault is that it is deciduous.    

Willows belong to a large family of plants.  The most well-known is the weeping Willow.  It has a poor reputation as it is attracted to water.  It really only belongs next to the bank of a stream, pond or lake.   It is notorious for clogging up water lines and septic drain fields.  In fact, willow branches are used as divining rods.  All willows are hydrotropic, meaning they grow towards water.

Another popular willow is the Pussy Willow, Salix discolor or American Pussy Willow.  This is a small shrub whose fuzzy flower buds appear early in the spring.  These buds open to release pollen and are technically called catkins.  They are also attracted to water so some thought needs to be made about where they are planted.

I discovered the other day another willow growing here in Macon County: the Curly or Corkscrew Willow.  This is a very interesting trip from China that grow to 20-40 feet.  It is listed as a short-lived tree which means it lasts about 50 years.

The family of willows has a most interesting history.  The Japanese have a superstition that if you have a toothache, sticking needles into a willow will cure the toothache.  The Greeks have a proverb that a male must pause to touch and smell a willow when passing it or lose his sweetheart. Another proverb says that if you take 99 willow leaves from 99 different willow trees and burn them eat the powder you will become a prophet.   Willow branches were often hung around doorways to keep witches and evil spirits away.  The phrase knock on wood sometimes refers to willows. Want to keep a secret? Tell a willow and then tap on it and its wood will keep the secret.  Also, knocking on wood is supposed to bring good luck.  The Weeping Willow has become a symbol of grief.

It is surprising to learn that an extract from willow bark contains a compound called salicin which is processed to produce aspirin.

All willows are very easy to root even in a glass of water on the kitchen window sill.  Underneath willow bark are hormones that promote root formation and growth.  If you want to root any cuttings you can make your own rooting agent.  Cut willow branches into 3-inch sections, bruise them with a hammer and boil them in water.  You will have produced your own liquid rooting hormone referred to as willow water.  What I just learned is that cinnamon powder will also speed up root formation on cuttings. Moisten the end of a stem you want to root and rub it in cinnamon powder. Cinnamon is an anti-fungal agent so that may account for its ability to aid in rooting.

It is curious that the descriptive term “dappled” applies to horses and shade as well as willows.  However dappled horses may not be able to keep many of your secrets. Dappled Willows are easy to grow, not demanding and because it roots so easily makes a good pass-along plant.  I do not think you make the same claim about dappled horses.

Dr. Bob Gilbert, now living in Franklin, is co-founder of Smith Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw, Ga. Karen Lawrence is a professional horticultural and wildlife photographer from Franklin.