Weeping Like a Willow

Authored by Sheldon Falk - Owner
Apr 22nd, 2024
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Weeping like a willow. I heard that chorus in a folk song somewhere long ago. As a young prairie boy, I just did not get it. Every willow I saw had nothing to do with weeping. There is the Golden Willow, which is upright, bright yellow in spring; Acute Leaf Willow which is much like the Golden without the gold; Silky White Willow is similar but has silver leaves and is pendulous if you look at it the right way. Lastly there is the lesser known Laurel Leaf Willow with its broader, glossier leaf. So, what is up with the weeping part? I had to travel outside Manitoba to figure that out. 

While visiting relatives in British Columbia, it clicked. There was a willow I had not yet met: the Golden Weeping Willow. Wow, those trees looked so cool – they are so different! The way their branches hung to the ground and swayed in the winds enchanted me. I went back to the prairies and started observing the willows. Occasionally I would run across what looked like a Golden Weeping Willow, except they never seem to reach full height other than in the extreme South-Central area of Manitoba. Here and there you would see a stumpy Golden Weeping Willow that was missing the top half. As I came to understand more about tree hardiness, I realized these trees were not in their ideal environment in Manitoba. You can find nice specimens in Fargo, and even in sheltered spots in Grand Forks. As a side note, Dr. Wilbert Ronald of Jeffrey’s Nursery near Portage la Prairie was instrumental in crossbreeding the Golden Weeping Willow with the Laurel Leaf Willows when he worked at the Morden Research Station. The new tree was named Prairie Cascade Willow. The cross was done over 50 years ago, and the tree has become quite popular in the northern states. The weeping habit is not quite as strong as the Lace Weeping Willow, nor is it quite as hardy or disease-resistant, but it has at least partially filled the gap for many years. We are greatly indebted to those gone before us with initiative to hybridize trees that will actually grow here.

As a young man, my appetite for growing trees grew insatiably. I started to pine for new trees that did not grow here (sorry for the pun!). I hunted for a cold-hardy weeping willow. After nearly 10 frustrating years with similar results of dieback, I stumbled upon a weeping willow being sold in Alberta claiming to be very hardy: the Lace Weeping Willow. With some skepticism I ordered a couple of them. Sometimes you win, more often you lose; but this time I won. Those two trees still grace our irrigation pond today behind our perennial house.

The weeping willow backstory is this: a man named Terry Lees from Alberta traveled to Northern China on agricultural business 28 times. Although he was representing the cattle industry, he was interested in trees and brought back two different types. One was this weeping willow, the other a catalpa which never worked out. By the time I found out about these trees, they had been tested in Southern Alberta and were virtually discarded there. The reason wasn’t the cold, it was the dryness. This willow does not put up with growing in dry ground; it loves the lower wet spots. While Southern Alberta was having poor results in their drier soil, Central and Northern Alberta were having good success with it. So not only is this tree good for those hard-to-grow wet spots and sticky Red River soil, but it’s plenty cold tolerant as well.

While the Lace Weeping Willow lacks the yellow bark of the Golden Weeping Willow it makes up for it with a number of other positive traits. It can grow 3 feet per year once it’s established, as long as it’s getting adequate moisture and isn’t competing with grass. We have found it has no major disease issues at this point. The leaves keep a clean, healthy green look throughout the season and turn yellow in the fall. It starts leafing early and doesn’t lose its leaves until Halloween, staying green until mid October! Having been planted on the nursery yard for 23 years now, we discovered a bonus feature: this willow is male. It does not produce any fluff to mess up your yard or plug the air conditioning units. An uncommon and valuable trait in willows!

Now, are there downsides? Of course, no tree is “perfect.” Willows have a reputation for dropping small dead branches after windstorms. Although the Weeping Willow seems a little more flexible, it will lose some branches over time; and though it does not lose live branches as quickly as the stiffer upright willows, this can occur after a strong summer storm. Another thing to be aware of is that, like all willows, it has a rather aggressive and sometimes shallow root system. Willows are thirsty trees and will seek out moisture anywhere they can find it. This means if they are too close to a septic field for example they will, eventually, grow roots into the pipes to search out more water. Like any tree, a safe planting distance needs to be determined before digging begins.

The reason I like it most, though, is that billowy exotic look. Weeping trees are just, well, different from most others. For me, the difference is variety, the spice of life. It kind of reminds me of Louisiana… maybe the Spanish moss hanging off of a live oak.  It conjures up stories of Tom Sawyer on the Mississippi. And it certainly produces the ambience of a warmer climate. Hanging onto those leaves for nearly six months certainly helps that cause.

This is a tree that can fill that niche in the backyard where the soil is just too damp to grow other trees like maples or flowering crabapples. It looks spectacular beside a creek or pond. It has become one of my favorites from both a presentable and a practical side. We have tested the Lace Weeping Willow well into Zone 2b and even sheltered spots of 2A in central Manitoba. It grows well here. If it appeals to you, it’s a pretty safe bet you should have good success with it as well.

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