The reason for this post is to emphasize one of the reasons why this tree—Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’ (curly or corkscrew willow)—is NOT a great tree for a residential landscape—particularly not on a small lot. I realize the photo below is difficult to interpret, so I have drawn some graphics on it to help. The upper arrow points to where a branch used to be attached to the tree. The lower arrow points to the branch on the ground.
Willows in general have weak wood, and many have steep branching angles which (on most trees) are structurally weak in the first place. Added to that, many willows are host to insects which further damage the wood and it’s structural integrity.
Willows also produce a lot of litter in the form of leaves and small branches throughout the year. Most call this trait—messy.
If you want to harvest willow branches for crafts, keep your plant small by cutting it to the ground most every year to encourage the new, (often colorful) growth. This practice is called coppicing if you cut the branches at ground level. It’s called pollarding if you cut it up higher letting there be a distinct trunk. Many willows are pollarded at about 2′-3′ off the ground creating a nicely rounded shrub. But you can find evidence of higher pollarding of other trees/shrubs all over town. The tell tale sign is a tree or shrub whose branches end in large knobby forms called knuckles. Many commercial landscapes employ pollarding. It’s an easy way to prune a woody plant, but once done, the plant will require this same pruning EVERY year.
Many homeowners think that by harshly whacking back their woody plants they will end pruning for another 20 years. Wrong! The new growth attaches to the knuckle in a weak and dysfunctional fashion. So letting these branches grow to large size invites danger and potential disaster. All branches much be re-cut at the knuckle each year.
The practice of coppicing and pollarding started centuries ago by basket-makers—at least that is the story I was told. They needed pliable branches of a certain diameter which were only found on the first years growth—the soft wood—of such plants as willow (Salix) and shrub dogwood (Cornus). They noticed that these plants had very colorful bark on this new, soft wood. So they employed these pruning practices so they’d have a continued supply of the type of branches they needed to make their baskets. This was the beginning of forest/woodland management.
My clients know that I love to recommend red-twig dogwood shrubs (Cornus alba or sericea) for their colorful bark display during the winter. Most cultivars grow quite large, and after the first year the colorful bark begins to turns gray. So I recommend coppicing these plants so they will form a dome shape that will be the same size each year (because the shrub only grows for one year before the entire plant is cut back to the ground).
I advocate placing several good-sized rocks or boulders around the shrub’s base for winter interest. Plant early spring bulbs like Cyclamen coum, crocus, Galanthus, Muscari and Narcissus in the spaces between the rocks and the shrub’s trunk. See photo at right. Though this is in a container, it gives a good idea what a larger garden could look like—and the shrub is a yellow-twig, rather than red. This will create a lovely late-winter/early-spring display before the dogwood leafs out in spring.
I recommend cutting red-twig dogwood around Valentine’s day. You can cut willow at the same time. Many willow cultivars produce lovely catkins if you put the cut branches into water inside. The Bluestem Nursery site has a great page on pruning willows, and a listing of willow cultivar uses.
The Bluestem site isn’t talking about curly willow in it’s pruning advice—it’s more the shrub cultivars. But I think this plant can be handled in the same manner—coppiced (or pollarded about 2′ off the ground). And still, it may be more trouble and larger than you really want in your yard. I never recommend them in small lot residential situations.
So, beware about your plant selection. Know your options. Pruning is a good thing, but should be started by the time most trees/shrubs are 3-5 years old, and repeated yearly or every other year. If you keep up on the pruning—taking just a little each year—you can have a healthier, tidier, smaller plant that will be an asset to your landscape.