The weeping willow, Salix babylonica, is easily recognizable for its gracefully drooping branches that sweep the ground. This native of China adds stately elegance in park settings or other expansive grounds. It is especially beautiful planted next to water, where not only the tree but its reflection can be enjoyed.
The weeping willow is deciduous and hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8. It is a relatively tall tree, reaching 30 to 40 feet tall. The crown is large and open, spreading up to 35 feet wide. The leaves of the weeping willow are long and narrow, between 2 1/2 to 6 inches long and only 1/2 inch wide. The upper part of the leaf is light green, while the underside is grayish-green. The tree produces yellow flowers on short catkins in April and May.
History and Lore
Few trees are more dramatic than the weeping willow. In naming the tree, botanist Carl Linnaeus appended the species name Salix with “babylonica,” mistakenly believing that this was the willow mentioned in the Bible (the trees mentioned in Psalm 137 were actually poplars). Depictions of the weeping willow tree are found on many early American gravestones, as a symbol of grief, lamentation and sorrow.
The weeping willow requires full sun or light shade. It is adaptable to both acidic or alkaline soil, and tolerant of a wide variety of conditions, including sandy or clay soils. Although it grows well near water, it is also drought-tolerant. The tree requires training and pruning to keep it healthy.
The weeping willow’s fast growth rate can sometimes be an advantage, and it is often planted near retention ponds of new developments where it quickly imparts presence. Weeping willows serve as a food source and nesting site for many mammals and birds.
Willows served as a medicine for American Indians, who discovered the pain-relieving qualities of the its twigs and bark. We now know that willows contain salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin.
Some weeping willow cultivars include “Babylon” and “Tristis,” both popular weeping forms, and “Aurea,” which has golden branches. “Golden Curls” offers a weeping form, golden bark and branches and twisted leaves. “Crispa” is a corkscrew willow having twisting branches and leaves.
There is something to be enjoyed about the weeping willow in every season. Its boughs reveal a welcome spring green color long before other trees have begun to leaf out. Its leaves shimmer in the wind in the summer and provide a long-lasting gold color in the fall. The tree’s weeping form provides interest in the winter even when it is without leaves.
On the negative side, the weeping willow has invasive roots that compete with other plants growing near it. PlantCare.com warns that this tree should never be planted near sewer lines, drains or water systems. When planted in areas with high humidity, the weeping willow can become subject to powdery mildew, blights and cankers. The trees are susceptible to breakage, as well as being relatively short-lived, rarely surviving past age 70.