“There is a willow grows aslant a brook,” opens Gertrude when narrating Ophelia’s death…
More than words, a picture that paints the ephemeral beauty of willows, with their trailing branches, their plant symbolism, their melancholy mood and appearance, a garden of the soul where willow trees and shrubs weep on rivers and on grass.
You see, just mentioning these trees brings lovely pictures of gardens in spring, of dappled shade and even the sweet chirping of birds and the bubbling of rivers. I can see why you would like one in your garden…
Willows, also called sallows and osiers, are a genus of deciduous trees or shrubs, Salix, comprising 400 species. Gardeners love them for their long, slender and often drooping branches, which look like strings of leaves, often silver or green but of many other colors too. Their original shapes and emotional presence can help you identify them and choose one for your garden.
Do you want that gentle beauty only willows can express in your garden? If so, or if you just want to get to know this amazing tree better to find one that fits your particular landscape needs.
Read on for information about types of willow trees and shrubs and tips for identifying willow in the landscape.
Below are 11 trees that produce shade, including some of their basic qualities to help begin your search and find a tree that you’ll enjoy.
Growing Willows In The Landscape
Willows have adorned gardens for centuries at least, and they have had a special place in our history and folklore for as long a time too!
We find them mentioned as growing on the rivers of Babylon in the Bible, in Native American culture willow branches are used for protection, and then, with landscape gardening, little England filled with the hanging branches of these trees because they match so well the natural look gardeners like William Kent wanted.
Since then, willows have been regular presence in gardens and public parks, often associated with water, as they grow well by ponds and lakes, but also looking great next to gravel or a lawn in a suburban front or back garden.
But there is more, willows are rich in salicin, which is a natural anti-inflammatory, in fact, salicylic acid is the active ingredient of aspirin.
Willows also have flowers, but they do not look like most flowers you know.
They have male and female flowers that appear as catkins (a.k.a. aments), cylindrical “plumes” with little or no petals, and visible stamens on the male flowers and pistils on the female ones
And if you want to grow one of these beauties, just find out all about them below to narrow down the choices.
13 Types of Willow Trees And Shrubs for Your Garden
From small shrubs to gentle giants, here are 13 of the best willow tree and bush varieties to find the perfect selection for your yard:
1. Weeping Willow (Salix Babylonica)
The most classical, traditional and easily recognizable willow tree variety of all is Salix babylonica, or weeping willow.
Native of China, this gorgeous tree has all the elegance of this genus, with long, flexible and drooping branches that fall from above to touch the ground…
Known to European gardeners since the times of the Silk Road, when it traveled with spices, silk and perfumes, it has been the protagonist of many paintings thanks to its deeply emotional, melancholy look, not least Claude Monet’s Weeping Willow.
The light green fronds that sway in the breeze of this tree capture the light of the Sun like little droplets on a a spider’s thread, and bring light to a whole garden with their gentle and refined dynamic plasticity.
The presence of a weeping willow tree rising from and then re-descending to a well kept lawn with its long arms brings that enchanted world of idyllic beauty that maybe never was to life.
On a river or by a pond, you will see this tree literally join in with the glittering water surface in a coral melancholy weep, as if the half forgotten sorrows of a past romantic love were picked up by the tree and then poured gently into the river, for the waters to carry them away.
Few trees can show you how Nature speaks directly to your soul as the weeping willow does.
2. Goat Willow (Salix Caprea)
For a different look, if you wish to bring a delicate deciduous woodland feel to your garden, goat willow ticks all the boxes.
Salix caprea, in fact, is a wild looking tree variety with a bush like appearance, and it would look well next to oaks and elms. In fact, it comes from Britain, where these trees fill woodlands on gentle hills.
It tends to grow many low branches, which look like multiple trunks, which spread wide and are of a warm brownish gray color.
These branches are string and woody, with bark of a cardboard texture that looks great when lichens call it home.
The leaves will not drop in long the “plaits” of a damsel in distress like with a weeping willow; instead, they will point upwards on twigs that grow towards the Sun in a thick canopy that will provide a lot of shade.
The leaves are nicely veined and of a fern to hunter green hue, which is rich and very much typical of woodlands.
The catkins are white and bright yellow and they will cover the branches with a fluffy plumage in spring, before the leaves come.
This is an excellent plant for big parks, especially if you want a fresh and natural looking or mountain feel.
It can also grow nicely in smaller gardens, as a backdrop to your lawn and flower beds, especially if you want to cover some ugly building or unsightly view from sight, and of you want to make your garden look like it ends into a natural forested area.
3. Arctic Willow (Salix Arctica)
The Arctic willow is a very short willow shrub variety that will bring to your garden the spirit (and look) of the cold places it comes from: cold, rocky and wind-swept tundra or vast steppes that cover in snow most of the year.
In fact it holds a world record in this field: it is the wooded plant that grows in the northernmost areas of the world.
This beautiful but very unassuming willow bush is excellent for rock gardens, where it will not grow more than a few inches among the stones, giving just a few inches from the ground, with little clumps of beautifully shaped glossy leaves.
You could also use it as a partly carpeting plant, maybe in beds or to soften the edges of a gravel path, as this willow will not fully cover the ground, but just break it up with patches of green.
This tiny willow, however, reaches its full aesthetic potential in spring, when the purplish red catkins will look like little painted hare tails rising just above the ground, an effect that will not go amiss in your garden.
If you are thinking about growing this small but unique willow shrub, choose a place well in sight, maybe close to the viewer’s eye, as it gives its best when looked at from close range.
4. Peachleaf Willow (Salix Amygdaloides)
Called “peachleaf willow” because the leaves are pointed, just like those of peach trees, this is a large tree from North America that feels at ease in large gardens or parks.
With a large, oval crown of green foliage that does not droop down like weeping willow, peachleaf willow brings us the look of the North American wild prairie, where it grows tall and proud in its natural habitat.
The trunk is sometimes straight and erect, while at times it splits into large branches at low level, near the roots.
You can, if you want, train your tree to follow one of these two main shapes when shaping it as a young specimen.
The catkins will come early in spring, but they are less “fluffy” than other willow varieties.
This is an excellent choice for large groups of plants, as its thick and green foliage can give you a very soothing backdrop for your garden on one hand, and on the other it mixes well with trees which have foliage of different colors and textures.
5. Dwarf Blue Arctic Willow (Salix Purpurea ‘Nana’)
Imagine round, elegant shrubs with turquoise to cadet blue foliage coasting the gravel oath to your front door… That’s one of the striking effects you can achieve with dwarf blue arctic willow.
Although it is called “Arctic”, this cultivar is not derived from Salix arctica, but from Salix purpurea, native of the British Isles.
Dwarf blue Arctic willow can easily be pruned, as the soft branches grow very regularly in a round shape from a central point; this has made it very popular in elegant and even modern suburban gardens, where it looks sculptural thanks to its spherical shape. It can also be used in topiaries and very formal gardens.
As a tip, to make the best of the shape and color of this shrub, place it near mulch, stones or gravel that set it off nicely and exalt its unusual hue.
6. Japanese Pussy Willow (Salix Chaenomeloides)
Japanese pussy willow is another “boldly elegant” tree, with a large round crown of rich and vibrant green foliage, strong branches that draw very artistic lines into your skyline in winter and then the slender, tender and young branches carrying a multitude of leaves growing from them.
The catkins will come in spring, before the leaves open on the new branches and they will fill your Japanese pussy willow with purple plumes that light the sky with their rich and vibrant color.
This is definitely a tree that wants a proper setting; it will grow well next to water, where you can admire its striking beauty from the opposite shore.
Alternatively, give the viewer a wide perspective to gaze at this tree; place it at the far end of a lawn, or at the end of a long perspective, and it will reward you with a natural beauty that is literally priceless.
7. Coyote Willow (Salix Exigua)
Coyote willow is a wildly elegant, rebellious but gentle shrub, lovely when the fronds wave in the wind.
It is a plat that will give you dappled shade on your loan, with a bamboo-like look, a plant with a similar effect in my view…
This makes it ideal for modern as well as traditional gardens, where it can bring a sense if lightness and brightness, also thanks to its thin and long leaves, whose color goes from green to silver green.
Native of North America, this plant will form a small bush when young, but it then turns into a beautiful large shrub with a round or oval shape that will mix well with the foliage of other plants and shrubs.
I particularly like it for the effects the foliage has on light, reflecting it in small shard-like patches and changing continuously with the movement of the leaves.
In the wild, it has a messy look, but you can prune it into an elegant large shrub the size of a tree, and, being very delicate, I would say with a “wild origami” presence, combining elegance with aesthetic freedom, this tree will also look great adding some movement to a well manicured lawn or in a semi-formal setting.
This is also an excellent plant to stabilize the shores of rivers, streams and ponds.
8. Brittle Willow (Salix Fragilis)
A gentle giant also called “crack willow”, brittle willow is tree with great ornamental value. The foliage in the mainly spherical crown is actually rich but very fine in texture and you can see the beautiful and shape of the branches through it in many cases.
The leaves are pointed and bright green, and they will provide lots of shade and play light games on the ground when the wind shakes them.
When the tree is adult, it can have a single large bole, or trunk, but some specimens split into large twin trunks at the base.
The two effects are, of course, quite different. If you shape it as a single trunk tree, it will take on a rather “old looking” and protective look early on in its life, while if you allow it to have multiple trunks, it will look more like a large bush.
Brittle willow is a fast growing willow tree, which makes it popular with gardeners, and which can give you a large green presence in your garden in just a few years.
9. Dappled Willow (Salix Integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’)
For a willow shrub that gives your garden the light of green foliage but also pink and cream white at the tips, dappled willow is the best, actually only, choice!
Yes, because this small willow grows tender straight branches that radiate from the center, forming a spherical bush that is green when it starts, but when the season progresses, the top leaves will be pink and cream.
The effect is stunning and you can also shape it into a very cute, round and colorful tree.
This beautiful variety, winner of the Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society, will look great with its showy foliage on the sides of the path to your front door, or even in formal settings and courtyard gardens.
However, it also adapts very well to leafy borders and hedges.
10. American Pussy Willow (Salix Discolor)
The round shrub that American pussy willow forms fills with green leaves late in the spring, giving it a round and fresh appearance, but it has a little ace up its sleeve: male plants will fill with very showy catkins with a very silky texture and pearl color before the leaves come.
So, for some time during the year, you will have a showy display of cotton buds, or tiny clouds hanging on the thin and dark new branches of this beautiful tree, an effect that will not be missed by your visitors.
This manageable size willow is excellent for borders and as a windbreak plant, and it grows well next to ponds and rivers too.
11. Japanese Pink Pussy Willow (Salix Gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’)
An easy to grow shrub with a great decorative effect for your borders but also as a leafy companion to your flowers in your garden beds, Japanese pink pussy willow is particularly valuable for its catkins.
In fact, they are fairly large, up to 2 inches long (5 cm) and they start off as pink (or rose pink) but then they turn silver… but hold on – it’s not finished here – in a third phase, they will cover in yellow as the pollen comes!
A really artistic display of colors that will look great in formal and informal gardens alike, in courtyard gardens and which you can even harvest as cut flowers!
12. Golden Willow (Salix Alba Var. Vitellina ‘Yelverton’)
The warm, sultry and at the same time romantic look of this plant can literally heat up any garden with passion and memories of hot summers in a sunny country…
It can literally bring to life summer romance, but, and here’s the trick, not so much with its leaves as with its branches!
How? Well, the young branches are of the brightest orange hue and when they are bare, they grow up like slender arching flames, forming a basket of fire…
When the leaves come, their deep green is very complementary to the bright orange, which you will still see peeping out from the lush foliage.
No wonder this shrub has won the Award of Garden Merit of the Royal Horticultural Society too, because it will bring energy, a great color effect and lots of fun in any border, bed, hedge or screen you want to grow it in, whether you keep it as a large shrub or you shape it into a tree with a very feisty ginger crown.
13. White Willow (Salix Alba)
We opened with the classic weeping willow and it’s only fair to close with another classic tree: the white willow.
Like the weeping willow, it has long frond like trailing branches that grow downwards like the hair of a beautiful lady.
Like the weeping willow it has those beautiful and harmonic arching branches that can turn your garden into a temple to Nature. But…
Usually, white willows have a very open appearance, looking at them from below, they appear like a delicate net of larger branches and many threads of pearls falling from them, the whole radiating from the center of the tree…
White willows also have silver green foliage, with long and pointed leaves, which, you may imagine, gives you amazing dappled shade effects when underneath it and beautiful twinkling light effects when you are admiring them at a distance.
Bit there is also a variety, Salix alba ‘Tristis’ which has yellow leaves, and this tree is a sure eye catcher in any garden.
Whether you need to add sone light coloring to the foliage of a group of trees, or whether you want a natural gazebo or parasol in the center of your lawn or garden, a white willow is for sure an excellent choice. Then again, just like most willows, its best place is always near some water, like a lake, a river or just a pond.
Don’t forget that the bark of white willow is natural aspirin, and this makes this tree not just a classic in gardening, but a real hero in the history of medicine and a cardinal healing plant.
Willows, the Water Trees
The beauty of willows has made the history of gardening, and I am sure you can appreciate why.
There are small colored shrubs and gentle giants; there are trees with long “hair” rising 20 meters into the sky and small clumps of leaves just popping out of the soil in between rocks… Willows have, as you can see, a very eclectic presence in gardens.
But maybe it is the fact that all willows, big and small, are always elegant, always peaceful and always benign inhabitants of woods, parks and gardens?
Then again willow trees have been the protagonists of our history and folklore and even arguably the trees that have given us our biggest breakthrough in medicine. And you can still use willow bark in tea instead of an aspirin (note that it’s stronger)…
But maybe the one thing that willows have that makes them so special is their relationship with water; reflecting their wonderful crown and branches into the water while kissing it with their tips of their leafy fingers, they seem to be in a constant embrace with water, an embrace that has lived through the centuries and millennia and have made willows the “water trees” from temperate regions par excellence.
Amber Noyes was born and raised in a suburban California town, San Mateo. She holds a master’s degree in horticulture from the University of California as well as a BS in Biology from the University of San Francisco. With experience working on an organic farm, water conservation research, farmers’ markets, and plant nursery, she understands what makes plants thrive and how we can better understand the connection between microclimate and plant health. When she’s not on the land, Amber loves informing people of new ideas/things related to gardening, especially organic gardening, houseplants, and growing plants in a small space.