Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today

 
 

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Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Curly-leaved willow pollard

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This is the tree that looks like it was dreamed up in an arts-and-crafts class:  Stick spirals of green paper on twigs, and there you are. 

 

But even though it looks made-up, the curly-leaved willow is real.  And so it's a tree you want to get a close look at.  It's only a momentary hurdle that, being a willow, it grows extremely quickly and would, in just a few years, put all that weird foliage high above you.

 

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But willows are a flexible lot.  To keep more of the cool spiral foliage closer to eye-level, start cutting the top of the tree off when it gets five or six feet tall.  Plants grow so fast that you might start the second Spring after planting. 

 

You can see where I've started to prune my curly-leaved each Spring:  The new growth has conspicuously fresh-green bark. 

 

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That green bark will show up really well in Winter, when the curly leaves themselves have fallen. 

 

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Curly-leaved willows grow so fast, though, that the new growth can be eight feet tall.  Radical Spring pruning—see "How to Handle It" below—does, indeed, limit the tree's overall height, but the new growth it encourages can, if anything, be even longer.  So my curly-willow pollard can be fourteen feet tall by September.  That's a lot shorter than the thirty feet the tree would be without any pruning, but still. 

 

So next season, in addition to the early-Spring pruning, I'll also pinch the tips of the new growth once or even twice during the Summer.  Then the top of the head of my willow pollard will be only a couple of feet taller than the trunk it springs from.

 

 

Here's how to grow this uniquely-foliaged beauty:

 

Latin Name

Salix babylonica 'Crispa'

Common Name

Curly-leaved Willow pollard

Family

Salicaceae, the Willow family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous tree.

Hardiness

Zones 5 - 8

Habit

Upright and single-trunked.  Open and sparse when young.

Rate of Growth

Very fast.

Size in ten years

Twenty feet tall and higher, and fifteen feet wide.

Texture

Unique, with the small corkscrews of the foliage (see "Grown for its foliage" below) making the tree's foliage look circular, and so nothing like the narrow pointed leaves of usual willows.  Because the foliage is so tightly curled, the bare stems between the leaves are unusually exposed, too.  The result is a tall open tree with, seemingly, round leaves.  The look is fanciful and painterly: Artistic and even unreal, in other words.

Grown for

its foliage: Typical narrow willow leaves are tightly curled, top-side out and two or three times around, making tight spirals of foliage a half-inch across.  The bottom side of the leaf is noticeably lighter, and the tight spirals reveal it far more than if the leaves were uncurled, in which case the lighter bottom sides would by in large be facing the ground.  The curled leaves also expose the bare stem between them.  The tree's unique foliage is striking even from a distance.

 

the smooth green bark on first-year stems: The bark's color is in dramatic contrast with the brown bark of main branches and the trunk itself.  Pruning the tree to remove old growth (with brown bark) and encourage new growth (with green bark) can greatly increase the intensity of the show.  See "How to Handle It" below.

Flowering season

Typical willow catkins in early Spring; April into May here in Southern New England.

Culture

Full sun when possible; accepts part shade but is less vigorous.  As is typical for shrub- and tree-sized willows that have green leaves, this plant thrives in heavy or damp soil, and is especially happy near, by, or, seasonally and briefly, even in fresh water.

How to handle it

Because the plant grows so fast—and faster than ever in response to pruning—feel free to get out your clippers.  The pussies are showy enough, and are easy to force indoors in Winter, so cut branches—even large ones—with gusto.

 

This is a good plant to prune severely in Spring after the display of pussies is done.  This limits the plant's overall size and also stimulates just the long wands of new growth that will, in the coming Winter, be particularly elegant to bring indoors for forcing.  The first-year growth it encourages also has attractive green bark; the bark of older branches is brown.  Your Spring pruning can be down to low branch-stumps only inches high ("coppicing") or to branch-stumps at the top of a trunk ("pollarding").  In the latter, cut off any branches that sprout from the trunk or the trunk base.


The new growth of pollards and coppices can be eight feet and more by September.  For an even denser habit, pinch the soft tips of new growth during the season when it's only a foot or two long; side branches will grow even more quickly.  (And yes, feel free to pinch those, too.)  On the other hand, if your priority is the longest wands to cut and force the following Winter, then let the new growth grow and grow all Summer.

Downsides

Willows are famously attractive to a host of diseases and bugs, some of which just disfigure the foliage but others can debilitate or even kill the entire tree.  That said, Curly-leaved Willow has been trouble-free and energetic for me.  This could be because strong-growing plants are in general more resistant to pests than struggling ones, and my Curly-leaved Willow is in just the circumstances it likes best.  Or it could just be beginner's luck:  My Curly-leaved Willow is my first ever.

Variants

Salix babylonica gives us the classic weeping willow as well as a cultivar with curly young stems with bright yellow bark, S. babylonica 'Golden Curls'. The latter benefits from the same uncompromising pruning that 'Crispa' does.

Availability

On-line and at retailers.

Propagation

By cuttings.  

Native habitat

Salix babylonica is native to China, not Babylon.  The confusion arises in the Bible, where weeping trees along the Euphrates River were called willows but were, and are, poplars, Populus euphratica.  That poplars are in the willow family, and enjoy the same watery habits, only compounds the confusions.  And then in the mid-18th Century, when the true weeping willow (Salix babylonica 'Pendula') finally reached Europe via the Middle East, that just seemed to confirm the Biblical reference.

 
 
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