In today’s global world we can easily make the mistake of thinking that international trade is something new and exciting, that ‘we’ recently discovered. How wrong we would be! The volume may be greater, but humans have been trading for thousands of years – even our stone-age ancestors did it, trading the best flints across great distances. Closer to our present time, trade between China and Europe has a long history, with good flowing along the Silk Road to the Middle East, and from there finding their way into the homes of wealthy Europeans.
Blue Willow – from Garden to Plate and Back Again
Once a direct route to China was found, one of the first and most valuable of items was porcelain. Europeans in the 17th century were not very good at pottery. Their pots were thick and roughly made, and the marvels of Chinese porcelain – so thin you could see light through it – made it highly desirable. The most valuable was blue & white pottery – painting of plants or figures in blue on a white background. The first shipments to arrive in Holland sold off the boat for a fortune, and with the difficulties of trading over such distances, it remained beyond the reach of ordinary people. Enterprising European potters saw and opportunity and began to copy it. By the beginning of the 18th century potters like Meissen in Germany and Italian potters in Faenza were making tolerable pieces that could be profitably sold to the mass market, and the English weren’t far behind. These companies decorated their pieces with patterns and designs ‘inspired by’ the Chinese pieces they saw, and fanciful scenes of Chinese gardens were especially popular. Around 1790 the pottery of Josiah Spode in England began to produce pieces with a distinctive garden scene, a design that is still being made today, that the English call ‘willow pattern’, and that we know in America as Blue Willow.
Central to this design is a tree with hanging branches – the Weeping Willow. The instant appeal of this tree made it popular on plates, and inspired countless gardeners to put one in their gardens. As many of them discovered, planting a willow tree is not something to be undertaken lightly, so let’s get out of the kitchen and move outdoors to learn more about this iconic tree.
The First Weeping Willow
There are many different species of willow trees growing mostly in the northern half of our planet, and humans soon discovered that their flexible twigs could be made into baskets. In dry areas of northern China the dominant willow is the species we today call Salix babylonica. Found growing near water, this is a fast-growing tree, reaching 60 to 80 feet tall, and often only living 60 to 70 years. Like all willows it has separate male and female trees, with both producing petal-less flowers in slender clusters called catkins. One day, thousands of years ago, a female tree with a poor sense of ‘up and down’ was found. The main branches grew upright, but all the smaller ones hung down under their own weight, creating a striking pendulous tree we know as the Weeping Willow. This unique tree grew easily from branches pushed into the ground, and it was soon found all across China, and from their it was taken along the Silk Road to Syria. From their it was brought to England by 1730, and it was soon found growing in gardens, and also as an escapee along streams and rivers. Early settlers brought it to America soon afterwards. It is worth mentioning that other popular garden plants followed the same route, including the Hardy Hibiscus, Hibiscus syriacus. Flowering in late summer and into the fall, this popular tree came to Europe from Syria, but it doesn’t grow wild there, instead it is found in China, just like the Weeping Willow.
When the inventor of our modern system of plant names, Carl Linnaeus, took on the job of naming this (and many other) trees, he immediately remembered the biblical reference to willow found in Psalm 137. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, …….We hanged our harps upon the willows …….” Linnaeus thought he was looking at this biblical willow, and so it became Salix babylonica. Today we know that it was the Euphrates poplar, not a willow, that grows along those rivers, and where the harps were hung.
Which Willow Should I Plant?
If you live in much of America, that original weeping willow, Salix babylonica ‘Pendula’, is not a good choice when you want to grow a willow tree. It grows too large, it’s roots are too invasive, it suffers in the cold, and worst of all, it originated in dry areas of China, and it easily becomes diseased and unsightly in more humid, rainy places. Luckily this original weeping willow can be pollinated by other species of willow, and she will produce hybrid seeds. This has happened several times, including with the European white willow, Salix alba. There is an attractive upright-growing form of that tree with golden yellow branches, handsome in winter, called ‘Vitellina’. Towards the end of the 19th century gardeners at the Späth Nursery in Berlin, Germany used that plant to pollinate a weeping willow. The resulting plant, the Weeping Golden Willow, is much hardier, and has weeping branches that are golden yellow, making a lovely winter scene.
This lovely tree is today called Salix x sepulcralis var. chrysocoma, and you will also find this same tree called Salix alba ‘Tristis’. That ‘x’ in the middle of the name tells us this plant is a cross between two plant species. (It should be pronounced ‘cross’, not ‘x’ if you want to sound like a true plant authority!)
The Weeping Golden Willow is vigorous and fast growing, often reaching 30 feet within 10 years, and ultimately growing to be 70 feet or more in height and spread. This is definitely a tree for a large garden, and should only be planted well away from any buildings, sewer lines, swimming pools or septic fields. Allow at least 100 feet, and preferable more than that. If you live on a lake or stream, that is an ideal location for this tree, which loves to drink deeply. It is hardy even in zone 2, as well as almost everywhere else, and it usually stays free of diseases. The most likely problem is storm damage, which is another reason to plant it well away from buildings and roads.
A Weeping Willow in a Pot
If all this sounds too difficult, and yet you still want a weeping willow, then a tub or large pot is the answer. Watered regularly a potted tree will live for years, and look beautiful without creating the problems it can if planted in the ground. It can be pruned – both the branches and the roots, during winter – and even turned into a bonsai tree.
Another beautiful willow to grow in a pot – and one that can cause similar problems if planted in a small garden – is the Corkscrew Willow, Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’. The spiraling and twisting branches of this remarkable tree are sometimes seen in florists’ arrangements, and it looks great in a pot. It also comes from China, and if you grow either of these trees in a large blue & white pot you will perfectly reflect the intertwined stories of how China gave both porcelain and plants to the West.
***If you want to check the availability of any of the plants mentioned here, go to our Home Page, click on the ‘Search’ button in the upper right, and type in your choice – both common names and botanical ones will work. If, sadly, you find the item sold out, click on the ‘notify me’ box beside the size you want, and you will get an email the moment that plant is available again – it’s easy.