Weeping like a Willow
I think I heard that statement in a song once. As a young prairie boy, I just didn’t get it. Every willow I saw had nothing to do with weeping. There’s the Golden Willow, which is upright and bright yellow in spring; the Acute Leaf Willow is much like the golden without the gold; Silky White Willow is similar, but has silver leaves on reddish-brown branches. Lastly there’s the obscure Laurel Leaf Willow which hardly anybody knows about.
So what’s up with the weeping part? Well, I had to travel outside the province to figure that one out. While visiting relatives in British Columbia, it finally clicked. Wow, those trees look so cool – they’re so different!
I went back to the prairies and started observing the willows. Occasionally I would run across what looked like a golden weeping willow, except that other than in the Morden/Winkler area they never seemed to reach full height. Here and there you would see a stumpy golden weeping willow that was missing the top half. As I came to understand tree hardiness I realized these trees were not in their ideal environment in Manitoba. You can find nice specimen in Fargo, and even in sheltered spots in Grand Forks.
As my appetite for growing trees grew, I started to pine for new trees that didn’t grow here (sorry for the pun!). I started hunting 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. With some skepticism I ordered a couple of them. Sometimes you win, more often you lose; this time I won. Those two trees still grace our irrigation pond behind our perennial greenhouse.
The story goes like this:
A man named Terry Lee from Alberta travelled to Northern China on agricultural business multiple 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 you’ve probably never heard of because it never really worked out.
By the time I found out about the trees, they had been tested in Southern Alberta and were virtually discarded there. The reason wasn’t the cold, it was the dry. This willow does not put up with growing in dry ground; it loves the lower wet spots. 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.
Having been on the yard for nearly 20 years, we also discovered a bonus feature: this willow is a male, so it does not produce any fluff to mess up your yard or stuff up the air conditioning units. We have found it has no major disease issues to this point. The leaves keep a clean, healthy green look throughout the season and turn yellow in the fall. It has two more favourable characteristics. It can grow 3 to 4 feet per year once it’s established, as long as it’s getting adequate moisture and isn’t competing with grass. Lastly, it starts leafing early and doesn’t lose its leaves until Halloween. It stays green until mid October!
Are there downsides? Of course, no tree is “perfect.” Willows have a reputation for dropping small dead branches after wind storms. 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 occasionally occur after a strong summer storm.
The reason I like it most, though, is that billowy exotic look. Weeping trees are just, well, different than most others. For me different is variety, the spice of life. It kind of reminds me of Louisiana… maybe the Spanish Moss hanging off of a live oak. For me 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 maples or flowering crabapples. It looks spectacular beside a creek or pond. It has become one of my favourites from a practical side as well – as long as it has reasonable soil, the grass is kept away from the stem, and it gets adequate moisture, it grows well here in Manitoba, and you should have good success with it.