Coyotes, dragon claws and weepers, oh my!

Willows are a local favorite

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— If you ask a friend about willows, they will often recall large weeping willows and their many troublesome traits.

The weepers are unquestionably graceful and picturesque standing tall (up to 70 feet) by a pond.

But alas, the horror stories about dropping branches all over, being weak-wooded and sporting a reputation of moisture-seeking roots to the possible havoc of your plumbing or foundation, are all true.

Fortunately there is a whole world of willows more manageable with brightly colored stems and leaves, unique forms, textures and stunning catkins (the "pussies" of pussy willows).

Willow flowers are tiny and come clustered in catkins.

All willows are dioecious, meaning individual plants have either all-male or all-female catkins. The male catkins are usually finer-textured, and with their colorful stamens are also much more ornamental. Willow bark has been used worldwide as a remedy for aches and injuries since prehistoric times.

Native Americans used young catkins as a minor food source, and both Native Americans and early white settlers used willow branches for basketry.

Willows are an important food source for wildlife. Buds and twigs are edible for birds while twigs, leaves and bark are prized by rabbits and hoofed browsers.

Native willows, such as coyote and pacific are used to stabilize and restore riverbanks in several restoration projects throughout Routt County.

Some choice willows

Pussy willow (S discolor), originally from the wet areas of the Eastern U.S., will grow in zones 4-8. (We are in zones 3-4).

The catkins appear in the mid to late spring and can be forced into earlier bloom if brought into the warm house.

Coyote willow (S. exigua), a native, grows well in zones 4-6.

It is a thicket forming suckering shrub with slender shoots and narrowly lance-shaped tapered gray-green leaves.

Gray-yellow catkins are borne in spring with the leaves and grows well in sandy soils. How did coyote willow get its name? There seem to be three possible answers:

n Coyotes like to gather at the foot of these trees and serenade the moon and each other.

n The winter wind howls through the bare branches of these trees like banshee coyotes.

n (Though few would dare to believe such an outrageous story) the trees themselves occasionally bend their tops together and howl quietly to each other, and this is the real reason they are called

coyote willows.

Native bluestem willow (S. irrorata), is another shrub willow. It has silver-blue branches that turn out gray catkins in early spring.

Net-leafed willow (S. reticulata), is a great little dwarf, prostrate shrub with glossy dark green leaves. In spring it bears long slender yellow catkins with pink tips.

Rosemary willow (S. elaeagnos), is a colorful shrub with slender, gray velvety shoots which later turn red-yellow to almost brown.

Corkscrew willow (S. matsudana tortuosa), also called dragon's claw willow. The branches of this 20- to 30-foot tree twist and contort, making the tree attractive art in winter landscape.

Have fun planting your willows and weep no more!

Kathy Conlon is a Routt County resident and a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or email: gardeners@co.routt.co.us.

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