Ohio Landscape Association

Plant Of The Month

SILVER CREEPING WILLOW Salix repens var. nitida

Over the years, we've discussed a few different Willows that have found popularity in the landscape, including Dapple Willow (S. integra Hakuro Nishiki') and Peking Willow (S. matsudana). Someday, we plan to cover the myriad species falling under the common name "Weeping Willow," but that will undoubtedly take some time to prepare.

This month, we want to share a great Willow that has come into our repertoire thanks to Bill Hendricks of Klyn Nursery. When discussing plants to include in a rain garden soil study, Bill suggested Salix repens var. nitida. To be honest, neither one of us had any clue about this plant. It's something we try not to beat ourselves up over, after all, there are easily more than 300 willow species in the world - and we're pretty sure we've got a long way to go before we aren't surprised by one.

Salix is an interesting genus, with circumpolar distribution in the Northern Hemisphere. There are reportedly about 75 species native to North America alone. Humans have a long-standing relationship with Willows, including a discovery by researchers at the University of Helsinki of a fishing net woven from young stems of a Willow dating back to 8300 BC. That's over 10,000 years of history!

Plenty of records exist of ancient cultures utilizing the flexibility of young Willow branches to make baskets, wattle fences, and walls for housing. The term "withy," or "withe," is Olde English for the long, straight, easily-bent branches of Willows. That term has found its way into other plants such as Witherod Viburnums (describing their long straight branches).

Perhaps the greatest relationship between humans and the Willow dates back to ancient Sumerian culture, where the leaves were used as a pain reliving agent. The leaves and bark contain Salicin, a glucoside chemical compound produced by the plant to reduce feeding after pest attack. As it turns out, chewing on the leaves and bark - thus ingesting Salicin - breaks down into acetyl-salicylic acid in humans. A modern product of this very chemical reaction is called Aspirin! With that in mind, we don't suggest you run out and start chewing on your clients' trees, but should you find you forgot to restock the first-aid kit on the truck, perhaps give it a try!

Usually, when someone hears the word Willow, they are picturing the beauty and grace of the Weeping Willow, or perhaps the unique blooms of the many species of Pussy Willow. The species we have selected this month is far from those famous Willows in habit. Salix repens, in general, is a low-growing and spreading plant. Repens is derived from the Latin word repent, which means creeping or crawling. The most common creeping Willow on the market is Salix repens var. nitida. This naturally occurring variety - as opposed to a cultivated/made variety or cultivar - will stay around 3 feet tall and send arching branches up and back towards the ground to cover about 5 or 6 feet. These branches will touch down, readily root in, and extend beyond this distance with ease.

Leaves are small (<1") with a bright, silvery-gray fuzz adding interesting foliage-color to the landscape. Stems are thin and arching, turning a great color of red for the winter. The overall habit of mounding over and being thick-as-thick-can-be is somewhat reminiscent of some tall ground-cover type Cotoneasters. Leaves being caught in the mounded branches may be a minimal concern if your client is a total clean freak, but we haven't had any issues with this becoming unsightly on the plants we have.

Now, back to the mention of the rain garden study& We are very pleased with the performance of this plant in all three soil blends - each with varying moisture content - through the seasons. With two full seasons of testing, the shrubs are all performing great in a wide range of soil types. While the plant - native from Western Europe to Western Asia - is often found in moister soils, it seems to tolerate drier sites, so long as you don't expect it to survive terrible soil and heat from a poorly-built parking lot island.

Salix is a great genus to pick plants out of, and perhaps deserves a better understanding from the landscape industry, in general. While there are some Willows that have given the genus a bad rep, there are plenty of great options once you study their preferences and abilities. We hope you'll give this silvery, tall ground-cover a shot in the proper design. We are certain it will not disappoint you, or your client!

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