A Gardening Journal

Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Fantail Willow in Winter



Blood-red, peculiarly flattened, curved: In Winter some of the twigs of fantail willow are a sui generis show. More often seen as part of a dried bouquet, when their warm color is lost completely even though their striking shape remains intact, twigs of Salix udensis 'Sekka' are most arresting when fresh. When, so to speak, their blood is still warm.


Only some of the twigs develop the flat deformation—the "fantail"—at their tips. The rest maintain their pencil profile to the tip. Fantailed or not, all the stems are bloodiest at the tip. As below, the middle portions of the stems are orange or cinnamon. Far from diminishing the overall show, the gradation in color only makes the deeper-hued tips stand out more strongly.




The bark of many other species of shrubs and trees can adopt any number of bright and exciting hues in cold weather. To date, I've looked at colorful forms of Acer, Cornus, and Tilia, as well as a number of other kinds of Salix. The young bark of some other plants, such as species of Caragana, Jasminum, Poncirus, Rubus, and Taxus, is colorful year-round


To my knowledge, stems of Salix udensis 'Sekka' are unique in adopting both dramatic coloring and dramatic form. That makes this "two-fer" willow essential.


Lest you take its show for granted, only some of this willow's twigs develop the fantail. The fantail is a flattened swelling at the tip of a stem, never in the middle. Once a stem begins fantailing, it continues to fantail for the rest of the season. Does the stubby look of the fantail mean that the rate of elongation of the branch slows as a result of it? Or does fantailing only begin to happen late in the season, when growth might already be slowing? 


And what happens to that fantailed tip the following Spring? Fantailing is an odd side-by-side proliferation of stems; instead of ramifying into distinct separate branches, new branches grow even while they remain attached at their sides to other new branches. Does new growth that would arise from those many growth points the following Spring continue to fantail? Or, if fantail formation only happens late in the season, does that mean that stems of regular habit arise from a fantail? Or is a fantail, somehow, the end of the road for that stem?


Received wisdom says that fantailing is enhanced by cutting all stems to the ground in early Spring. I'll cut back most of mine—but will leave a couple of my fantailed tips intact. By next Fall, more of the answers to these questions will become clear.


Here's how to grow another form of Salix udensis, the yellow-leaved 'Golden Sunshine'. All forms of Salix udensis thrive in both saturated and normal soil, and can be grown as free-range shrubs, coppices, and (with plenty of regular pruning-out of the basal shoots) standards.


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