The wonderful world of willows

— There is a whole world of willows with brightly colored stems and leaves, unique forms, textures and stunning catkins available to Steamboat-area gardeners. Native willows, such as Coyote and Pacific, are used to stabilize and restore riverbanks in several restoration projects throughout Routt County.

Willow bark has been used worldwide as a remedy for aches and injuries since prehistoric times. Native Americans used young catkins as a minor food source and both Native Americans and early white settlers used willow branches for basketry. Willows are an important food source for wildlife buds and twigs for birds and twigs, leaves and bark for rabbits and hooved browsers.

Here are some choice willows for our zone 3-4 high country environment:

Pussy willow (S. discolor): originally from the wet areas of the eastern U.S., will grow in zones 4-8. The catkins appear in the mid- to late spring and can be forced into earlier bloom if brought into the warm house. The colors range from typical silver gray to soft pink.

Coyote willow (S. exigua): a native, grows well in zones 4-6. It is a thicket-forming suckering shrub with slender shoots and narrowly lance-shaped tapered gray-green leaves. Gray-yellow catkins are borne in spring with the leaves. Grows well in sandy soils.

Net-leaved willow (S. reticulata): a great little dwarf, prostrate shrub with glossy dark green leaves. In spring it bears long slender yellow catkins with pink tips. It is also referred to as pink mountain heather.

Rosemary willow (S. elaeagnos): zones 4-7 is a colorful shrub with slender, gray velvety shoots that later turn red-yellow to almost brown. It has long, gray leaves that are narrow and slightly twisted, like rosemary.

Silver Willow (S. alba var. sericea): has shiny slender silvery leaves, which are glazed with silky hairs for a more subtle effect. Grows in zones 3-9.

Corkscrew Willow (S. matsudana tortuosa): also called dragon's claw willow. The branches of this 20- to 30-foot tree twist and contort, making the tree attractive art in winter landscape.

Fantail Willow (udemsos 'Sekka'): a favorite with mahogany-red stems that become fasciated-flattened and curved toward the tips. Grows well in zones 4-7.

Scarlett Willow (albassp.vitellian 'Britzensis'): another very colorful willow with orange-red winter shoots for an interesting winter landscape.

Flame willow (S. 'Flame'): for colorful branches, it's hard to beat. Its vivid orange-red branches are often mistaken for those of a red-twig dogwood but are actually more brilliant. Zones 3-6.

Enjoy a wonderful world of willows in your Yampa Valley garden.

Kathy Conlon is a Routt County resident and a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or e-mail: gardeners@co.routt.co.us.

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