10 Stunning Types of Willow Trees and Shrubs

There are over 400 different types of willow trees and shrubs across the globe. Willows are defined by their thin, flexible branches that are covered in elongated leaves which drape down. 

Willow bark contains a chemical called salicin which has been used for centuries as an effective pain treatment. The supple branches are also popular with craftsmen, being used to create fences, baskets, and sculptures.  

Willows are native to the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere and thrive in moist conditions. They range in size from towering trees to small shrubs and are popular additions to both private gardens and public parks. 

Willows are dioecious, meaning male and female flowers grow on separate trees. Willows bloom from February to June, producing catkins. These fuzzy tubular flowers vary in their look depending on the species of willow and whether they are male or female. 

Types of Willow Trees

The best way to visually categorize willows is by their size. They have very wide-spreading roots, up to 40 meters wide in some species, meaning they need plenty of space to grow. This also means they are unsuitable for growing in containers or being kept indoors. 

Large Willows

The white willow is the largest willow tree species and can reach up to 25 meters in height. Larger specimens are a common sight in parks and woodlands, particularly near bodies of water. 

Small Willows

The dwarf willow is the smallest of the willow tree species, typically growing between 1cm and 6cm in height. Smaller willows may resemble miniature trees or appear shrub-like and these make an attractive yet manageable addition to garden landscapes. 

Varieties of Willows

Of the many different yet amazing varieties of willows that exist, I have compiled a list of the top 10. Each of my selections highlights important characteristics and attributes of the particular species and will provide you with the knowledge required to make any botanical decisions. 

1. Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica)

Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica)
  • Ideal Position: Full sun
  • Mature Size: 35 to 50 feet
  • USDA Zones: 6 to 9
  • Native to: Northern China

The weeping willow is arguably the most well-known of the willow species. It has a thick, knotted trunk and thin branches that turn down and are heavily covered in long, thin leaves that sway in the breeze. 

Associated with grief, weeping willows are often planted in graveyards across Asia. These trees are best planted near bodies of water and at least 50 feet from any infrastructure, due to their invasive root system. 

2. Japanese Willow (Salix integra )

Japanese Willow (Salix integra )
  • Ideal Position: Full sun to part shade
  • Mature Size: 4 to 6 feet
  • USDA Zones: 4 to 9
  • Native to: Northern China, Russia, Japan, South Korea

Also known as Dappled willow is a delicate-looking tree that stays relatively small, making it an ideal garden specimen. When the leaves first appear, they are pink in color and fade to green and white over the season. During the winter, its branches turn red. 

Like other willows, it has invasive roots so should be planted at least 6 feet away from other plants. They have multiple branches that often intertwine with one another or other plants that are in close proximity. 

Japanese willow can be grown as a stand-alone centerpiece or many of them can be planted together to create a hedge-like effect.

3. White Willow (Salix alba)

White Willow (Salix alba)
  • Ideal Position: Full sun to part shade
  • Mature Size: 50 to 100 feet
  • USDA Zones: 4 to 9
  • Native to: Europe and Asia 

The white willow is very large and fast-growing, meaning they need plenty of space to thrive. Despite its huge size, it’s not commonly chosen for landscaping as the wood is fairly weak. 

White willow is so-called because of the silvery-white underside of its elongated leaves, that glean in the sunlight. This species is prone to infection by fungi that cause diamond-shaped deformities in the wood.  

4. Goat Willow (Salix caprea)

Goat Willow (Salix caprea)
  • Ideal Position: Full sun to part shade
  • Mature Size: 12 to 30 feet
  • USDA Zones: 5 to 8
  • Native to: Europe and Asia 

Goat willow is a fairly small tree species that is often used as a filler or divider plant. This species of fluffy male catkins start off grey and turn yellow in March. 

The catkins somewhat resemble the paw of a cat, which is why this tree is also called pussy willow. 

Unlike most willows, the leaves of this species are ovular rather than long and thin. The tree itself assumes a much more upright silhouette, instead of a drooping one. 

Goat willow loves damp soil and is often added to gardens that are prone to waterlogging, to help absorb excess water. 

5. Corkscrew Willow (Salix matsudana tortuosa)

Corkscrew Willow
  • Ideal Position: Full sun to part shade
  • Mature Size: 20 to 50 feet
  • USDA Zones: 4 to 9
  • Native to: Northeast China 

The corkscrew willow gets its name from the twisting and curling branches it bears. The leaves of this tree are also slightly curled. 

The unique patterning of branches provides visual interest during the winter when its leaves have dropped off. 

The elongated leaves of this tree are green for most of the year and become golden-yellow in the fall, prior to dropping. Its unique branches are commonly used as bonsai and in flower arrangements. 

Corkscrew willow is a fast-growing tree, and the twigs are traditionally used for medicinal purposes, as they contain salicylic acid. 

6. Purple Osier Willow (Salix purpurea )

Purple Osier Willow (Salix purpurea )
  • Ideal Position: Full sun 
  • Mature Size: 8 to 15 feet
  • USDA Zones: 4 to 9
  • Native to: Asia, Africa, and Europe

The purple willow is a shrub rather than a true tree and has purple stems with long, green leaves. 

During the summer, this species produces deep red-purple catkins, hence its name. It is often planted as a hedge or along streams to help control erosion. 

The purple stems and catkins make this shrub very attractive. Purple willow is evergreen and fairly hardy, making it a popular garden shrub. The bark is often used to help treat pain such as headaches, because it contains salicin.  

7. Crack Willow (Salix fragilis)

Crack Willow (Salix fragilis)
  • Ideal Position: Full sun 
  • Mature Size: 33 to 66 feet
  • USDA Zones: 4 to 8
  • Native to: Europe and Western Asia

The crack willow gets its name from the loud cracking sounds its branches make. In springtime, new shoots emerge with a reddish tinge from which flowers form, shortly followed by yellow catkins.

These trees grow rapidly but never reach enormous sizes because their somewhat weak branches tend to break under the pressure of their own weight. 

Crack willow is usually planted along waterlogged areas such as bogs and riverbanks because its dense root system helps prevent erosion by absorbing water. 

They can tolerate heavily saturated and oxygen-poor soils. 

8. Peach Leaf Willow (Salix amygdaloides)

Peach Leaf Willow (Salix amygdaloides)
  • Ideal Position: Full sun to part shade
  • Mature Size: 30 to 50 feet
  • USDA Zones: 3 to 5
  • Native to: North America 

As its name suggests, the leaves of this willow closely resemble the leaves of a peach tree. The peach leaf willow has red branches with elongated leaves that are green on top and whitish-green underneath. 

During the spring, this tree produces fuzzy yellow catkins that are highly attractive to pollinators. 

Peach leaf willows favor sunny environments and moist soil, hence they are commonly found along riverbanks. The rapid growth rate of these species makes them excellent for quickly filling out large areas to control erosion. They are often found growing alongside cottonwoods. 

9. Yellow Willow (Salix lutea)

Yellow Willow (Salix lutea)
  • Ideal Position: Full sun 
  • Mature Size: 16 to 23 feet
  • USDA Zones: 2 to 9
  • Native to: North America 

The yellow willow tree is known for its beauty. These small to medium-sized trees have a thick trunk with many, winding branches. They have green, elongated leaves that hand down from the branches, creating a cascading effect. 

In the spring, fuzzy yellow-white catkins emerge with the leaves. During the fall, the leaves turn yellow before dropping, creating a golden-yellow appearance. Yellow willow is popular with a variety of wildlife, including pollinators such as butterflies. 

Yellow willow is commonly grown in gardens for its appearance and tolerance to different soil types. Regular pruning of these trees will keep them looking neat and less bushy. 

10. Bebb Willow (Salix bebbiana)

Bebb Willow (Salix bebbiana)
Credit: Matt Lavin by CC: 2.0
  • Ideal Position: Full sun to part shade 
  • Mature Size: 10 to 30 feet
  • USDA Zones: 3 to 7
  • Native to: North America 

Bebb willow is a large shrub that is tolerant to growing in most soil types, from sandy to heavy clay. This species is common across the wetlands of North America where it thrives alongside lakes and boggy areas that provide an abundance of moisture.  

The thin, flexible branches of the Bebb willow are adorned with green, elongated leaves. The bark is red-brown in color and it is susceptible to diamond willow fungus which causes diamond-shaped depressions. It is also short-lived, meaning this species is rarely used for landscaping. 

Bebb Willow supports a number of pollinators. This species also provides numerous medicinal purposes, such as sanitizing wounds. The flexible branches are commonly used for craft projects, such as making baskets, clothes, and furniture.  

Willow Tree Care 

There are a few steps you can take to ensure you give your willow tree the best care possible. From the ideal position to soil type to irrigation requirements, I have provided a general overview of how to keep your willow tree happy and healthy. 

Watering Requirements

Naturally, willow trees grow close to bodies of water, be it lakes, ponds, or bogs. Willows have extensive root systems that actively seek water. As such, newly planted trees should receive deep and thorough watering at least once a week. Established trees still require constantly moist soil.  

Position

Willow trees should be planted in a location where they will receive at least partial, but ideally full sun. Moreover, due to their invasive roots, willows should not be planted near any buildings as they can damage drains, septic tanks, and waterways. 

Generally, willows should be planted in soil as they are notoriously difficult to maintain in containers. However, willow wands can be potted, which are willow stems that are woven together. 

Temperature and Humidity

Willow trees are hardy and can grow in a range of climate conditions, being both drought and cold-tolerant. During the growing season, temperatures between 80oF and 90oF are ideal. Willows prefer warm and humid climates over cold and dry ones. 

Soil Composition

Due to their tolerance to a wide variety of soils, willows are rather low maintenance. Willow trees will grow best in moist, slightly acidic soil. However, they will grow in alkaline, sandy, and clay soils.  

Feeding

Mature willows rarely require fertilizer, though can be added during the growing season to keep them looking their best. Slow-release, organic fertilizers such as mulch should be used. It can also be applied to lower the pH of the soil. 

Propagation 

Willows are easy to propagate from cuttings as they quickly take root. You can take softwood cuttings in the summer or hardwood cuttings in the winter. Be sure to cut the branch just below a node and place them in a potting container. Shoots should appear the following spring. 

If you enjoyed this article, here’s a link to 14 varieties of trees with purple flowers that may also be of interest.

Frequently Asked Questions

What species of willow tree is best for landscaping?

The weeping willow boasts the most easily recognizable willow shape with its flexible branches and drooping leaves. Their grand size makes for an excellent statement tree.

Is my small garden suitable for a willow tree?

Not all species of willow are large trees, some are more shrub-like, such as the dappled and purple osier willow. Be sure to give any willow plenty of space for its extensive root system. 

Citations

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Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.