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Discover Miniature Willows

The graceful weeping willow comes to mind first when you say the word “willow”. Next are the large willows that grow along riversides and then, popular shrubs in the garden, such as Purple basket willow (Salix purpurea ‘Gracilis’) or spotted willow (Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’). But, there are also, in this very vast family of more than 450 species, very small plants with incredible qualities: miniature willows.

Woolly willow (Salix lanata) is one of the main miniature willows that thrive in garden conditions. Image Julie Boudreau

These small shrubs barely exceed 3 feet (1 meter) in height and most are creeping shrubs. They are therefore quite different in appearance from the better known trees and shrubs. The growth of these miniature plants is slow. Some develop new annual shoots no more than an inch (2 cm) long. The main interest of these miniature willows is their great hardiness, some finding the full happiness of their existence in zone USDA 1! Also, according to my observations, they are overlooked by insects, such as willow calligrapher or willow flea weevil that are so common in large specimens. Miniature willows also have the prettiest leaves. Often leathery and thick, sometimes rounded, sometimes textured and occasionally hairy! They have a certain appeal. Of course, it is not with such small plants that one can make a complete landscape design, although certain creeping varieties form very beautiful ground covers. Miniature willows are more for collectors or for those nostalgic of the beautiful mountain altitudes.

Crawling Kings of the Mountains

A large portion of miniature willows are found at high elevations, on mountain peaks, above the tree line. Another proportion of these small willows prefer the tundra. They are found in America, Europe and Asia as well. They are everywhere!

On the American side, the hiker is able to come across several species, including the reticulated willow (Salix reticulata) or the Rocky Mountain willow (Salix petrophila). These two species crawl on the ground and embrace all the unevenness that their habitat offers. In the White Mountains of New Hampshire, you will discover the bearberry willow (Salix uva-ursi), with its pretty pink catkins. In province of Quebec, you will find the short-fruited willow (Salix brachycarpa), particularly at the summit of Mont-Albert, in the Parc national de la Gaspésie. Many species of miniature willows are protected or sometimes threatened with extinction, and it is through their discovery in the natural environment that their appreciation will be made.

Two wonderful willows that I have discovered in my hiking expeditions. Images: Julie Boudreau

Little Garden Treasures

Luckily for gardeners, some species are grown for ornamental purposes. However, you should know that miniature willows are not abundantly present in nurseries and garden centers. One of the main reasons for this shortcoming is of course their slow growth which deprives any producer in search of profitability of the desire to multiply them. It is therefore in gatherings of alpine plants lovers and in horticultural festivals that you will find some specialized nurserymen or avid gardeners who will offer themselves the pleasure of multiplying some of these rarities. Jump on these beautiful “catches” as soon as you discover that you have one of these little treasures at reach of the hand (and wallet)!

Among these species available to gardeners is the arctic willow (Salix arctica), the real one! Yes, many willow species are given the arctic epithet. The arctic willow that interests us here is a spreading plant no more than 6 inches (15 cm) in height, with beautiful glossy and textured foliage. Similar in appearance, but somewhat larger in size, the Nakamura willow (Salix nakamurana var. yezoalpina) is often used at the edge of dry walls.

With a slightly more upright habit, the downy willow (Salix vestita) bears thick, textured leaves and mustard-yellow buds. It is also native to the arctic zone. And directly from Nunavut, the chalk willow (Salix calcicola) is in the “very small and too cute” category! Young leaves are covered with long gray hairs and become rounded and textured when mature. If it reaches 2 feet (50 cm) in height, it’s a record! Completely different in appearance, with its tiny leaves, one can also grow in the garden this other ground cover willow, the blueberry-leaved willow (Salix myrtilloides). The latter is very different from most miniature willows that are grown in the garden, because its stems are not thick. It is delicate in appearance. There is even a cultivar with pink kittens, ‘Pink Tassels’!

These four species are a great selection to grow in the garden. Images : Julie Boudreau

Then, I saved the best for last, Boyd’s willow!

Boyd’s Dwarf Willow: My Current Favorite

I discovered this intriguing plant while listening to the podcast The Fabulous Gardens of Elsie Reford. I kept my eyes opened and eventually found a specimen of this little willow. My Boyd’s Dwarf Willow (Salix x sibyllina, formerly Salix x boydii) is just 7 inches (20 cm) tall and it went through its first winter without blinking an eye. At maturity, it will peak at 2 feet (60 cm) in height.

The history of this little willow is quite fascinating, as it was only seen once in the wild, around 1870. Discovered in the Angus region of Scotland, by Bill Boyd, it is said that all plants brought into cultivation come from this one and only plant discovered by Boyd! This willow would be a hybrid between the Lapland willow (Salix lapponum) and reticulated willow.

The Boyd willow is one of my recent discoveries. Image : Fotych on Shutterstock

This is only a part of all the miniature willows that can be enjoyed in the garden. And they all have in common their surprising ease of cultivation, even if they are generally plants for collectors.

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

3 comments on “Discover Miniature Willows

  1. Indeed they are wonderful. The only problem is the lack of availability. In recent years they have become quite scarce as really good alpine/rock garden retail mail order nurseries have shuttered (Beaver Creek Greenhouses, Alpines Mont Echo, Siskiyou Rare Plant Nursery, Collectors Nursery etc.). Other than Wrightman’s Alpines, I don’t know anyone offering them in North America anymore.

  2. Lucia Benson

    When we think of willows, it’s true that the graceful weeping willow often comes to mind first, followed by the larger willow trees found along riversides. Additionally, there are popular shrubs like the Purple basket willow (Salix purpurea ‘Gracilis’) or the spotted willow (Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’) that are commonly seen in gardens. However, within this extensive family of over 450 species, there are also miniature willows that possess incredible qualities. geometry dash world

  3. WOW

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