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S. (Willow) Stems at Bluestem Nursery

Salix (Willow)

Pruning Willows for Ornamental Effect

S. alba 'Britzensis'

Salix babylonica var. pekinensis -
growth from a cutting in one year

Willows are different from most other shrubs and trees in that they can be drastically pruned for an entirely different look.

When you see the height listed for a willow, that is the height it will reach if it is not cut back (either coppiced or pollarded). Coppicing a willow (one that is cut back to ground level) will result in numerous rods growing from the crown or stool. The tremendous growth rate of willows results in rods that grow to 4-10' in a season. S. triandra 'Black Maul' rods reach 8'+ for us, while S. x 'Flame' has annual growth of about 5'. This type of pruning promotes bushy growth from the ground up to a height of 4-7', depending on the growth rate of the variety, making coppiced or pollarded willows excellent as a screen.

This type of pruning also results in a mass of colorful rods for the winter, as it is only the new growth that is so intensely colored. It is interesting that the rods only take on the color in the fall. If pruned to the ground each spring, the new growth is particularly interesting in varieties such as:

For more pictures look at our blog. New photos were posted on Apr 2, 2016.

Pruning can be done virtually anytime during the growing season, but keep in mind that cutting willows back, particularly back to the ground, will stimulate new growth.

Here are a few reasons why many gardeners prune willows:

  • for the new growth that is so colorful in many varieties.
  • basketmakers like cutting willows back to the ground each season because the growth that follows are the long straight rods with intense stem color
  • to keep their overall size in check

Coppicing Willows

where to make the cuts

This is a simple procedure done by cutting all the top growth to ground level in late winter.

How to:

Year 1 - in the spring, plant the dormant willow cuttings in the soil (simply push them in a few inches), leaving 2 or 3 buds above the level of the soil. Or plant plugs. Provide ample water throughout the growing season.

Year 2 and onwards - in late winter prune all the rods back to the point from which they grew the previous year. Provide ample water throughout the growing season.

Note: the growth that has been cut off can be placed in water to stimulate the catkins, or it can be used for basketry, living willow structures, twig furniture, wattle fencing and more. Visit our page which indicates the rod diameter and length that can be expected from the 2 yr old stool of a basketry willow. There you can also see pictures of the base of coppiced plants.

Pollarding Willows

Polling or pollarding is when a tree is pruned to a main trunk at a height of about 2-3'. All the branches are annually cut off to leave just a stub. This method of cutting back growth encourages a close rounded head of brightly colored branches. Should you live in an area where deer dine on willows (they often ignore them) pollarding the plants is very useful for keeping them out of their reach.

Salix triandra 'Black Maul'
young pollarded willows,
soon to be cut back to a stub

Historically the best willows to pollard have been:

Some of the smaller species can make striking ornamentals with this method. The following can be trained into a small weeping tree:

How To:

Pollarded willows are usually planted in rows, evenly spaced so as not to crowd each other. There are different growth rates between species and it is not necessary to plant them so far apart that the rods are barely touching. Yet, planting too close together where they are competing for water and nutrients is not desirable.

  • Year 1: plant a row of cuttings, leaving 2-3 buds above the ground. Or plant plugs. Provide ample moisture.
  • Year 2: when the plant is dormant - select the strongest rod and cut the others off at the base. Cut the remaining rod back to 1-3 m (3-10').
  • Year 3 onwards: prune all the rods off at the stub.

Changed Your Mind About Coppicing?

If you started by coppicing a willow, and then would like to let it grow unpruned, we have a few tips:

  • this works best if the plant has been coppiced once or twice:
    • trim all but the strongest leader
    • at the base of the plant, just as the the buds start to open in the spring, rub off all buds except for those on the leader
    • also rub off the lower buds on the lower part of the leader (if you want a clean trunk)
    • check later in the growing season, as more buds may have formed; they need to be removed
    • dis-budding must be done every year
  • for older plants that have been coppiced for years:
    • just let them grow, as they turn into really attractive large shrubs; the old wood will get big and eventually die
  • willows that are shrubs should be grown as shrubs (multi-stemmed) and not be trained to grow into a tree (single stemmed)


Salix triandra 'Black Maul'

This plant grows quickly!!

First season's growth of S. triandra 'Black Maul'. This stand is 7-8' tall. In the spring they were mere cuttings planted approximately 12" apart in all directions. By the way, do as we say, not as we do - a spacing of at least 2-3' is recommended.

If left unpruned S. triandra 'Black Maul' will become a large shrub. It makes a great windbreak or screen. If the rods are harvested they are suitable for twig furniture, basketry, wattle fencing, willow weaving and living willow structures. It also has nice catkins.