Salley garden

Curator Rob sings the praises of willows, as their bare stems become clothed in leaves and catkins

Although the nights in April often have remnants of winter cold, I find this time of year a joy. Spring is in full stride as daylight lengthens and the brightness of the sun warms the air. April comes into its own as buds burst.

Crafted willow Salix alba var vitellinaWith this in mind  I've chosen Salix (willow) as my first blog for RHS Garden Hyde Hall. Why, you may ask? The simple reason is that we often associate willow with winter and the colour it bring to our gardens during dark, cold days. A mix of Cornus (dogwood) and Salix such as Salix alba var. vittelina, which at Hyde Hall for many a year now have been crafted and shaped to help sculpture the winter landscape (see opposite). But to me, it is this time of year that the willows really come into their own as they begin to flower and leaves develop, clothing their winter nakedness.  

A bit of botany

Salix babylonica var pekinensis Tortuosa

There are more than 400 species of willow throughout the world all of which are dioecious, (male and female parts are borne on separate plants). They readily hybridise, a hybrid between a European and Chinese willow, the weeping willow, Salix × sepulcralis, is an example of this.

Garden willow

Over a dozen plants have the RHS Award of Garden Merit. At Hyde Hall we have some 18 different willows across the whole garden. The largest concentration is in Hilltop area. Here that you'll find the splendid Salix babylonica var. pekinensis 'Tortuosa' with its wiry stems and bright catkins. Around the lower pond you will find Salix × sepulcralis 'Erythroflexuosa' AGM and dune or beach willow, Salix hookeriana with its wonderful woolly, yellow catkins (see below).  

Wild willow

Salix hookerianaWe shouldn't forget the willow we find in our hedgerows and ditches. Here at Hyde Hall in the Essex landscape of the wider estate, Salix caprea, pussy or goat willow can be seen in all its splendour, with both the male and female catkins being equally delightful.   

Willows are easy to cultivate and most will easily propagate through cuttings planted either into the ground or a pot. They tolerate wet conditions and are good at stabilising the banks of watercourses. The stems make great baskets and are apparently still the best for hot air balloons. And of course if a headache threatens, willow bark is the origin of aspirin. Enjoy!

Useful links

Living willow structures

Award of Garden Merit  – AGM

Hardwood cuttings


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